Disaster Bootcamp

Prepare yourself to provide legal aid to disaster survivors. Find out what you need to know about disaster declarations, survivor assistance, common post-disaster issues, and ways to get involved.

Page last updated: 04/20/2023

What Is a Disaster?

“Disaster” can be defined in many ways. In the strictest sense, Oxford Languages defines it as “a sudden event, such as an accident or a natural catastrophe, that causes great damage or loss of life.” Many disaster relief organizations define it in terms of survivor needs. For example, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies defines disasters as “serious disruptions to the functioning of a community that exceed its capacity to cope using its own resources.”  

For the U.S. government, “major disaster” has a very specific meaning under federal law in terms of determining the need for federal assistance to a community and its residents. Under the federal government’s parameters, the term can apply to any natural catastrophe, such as a hurricane, tornado, storm, high water, wind-driven water, tidal wave, tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, mudslide, snowstorm, or drought. It also can apply to any fire, flood, or explosion, regardless of cause, that “causes damage of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant major disaster assistance.” 

Under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, PL 100-707, known as the Stafford Act, federal assistance for individuals becomes available when the president of the United States issues a major disaster declaration for an area, such as a county or counties. Under the Stafford Act: 

  • The president can declare a major disaster after determining that the disaster has caused damage of such severity that it is beyond the combined capabilities of state and local governments to respond. 
  • A state governor or a federally recognized Native American tribal government for the area affected by a disaster must request a declaration by the president that a major disaster exists. A “state” includes the District of Columbia as well as Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories. These requests include a preliminary damage assessment conducted by state and federal officials. 

Flowchart detailing how FEMA assistance is implemented

The president can also issue an emergency declaration under a similar process. But federal aid under emergency declarations is almost always limited to public assistance to state, tribal, and local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations for emergency work and the repair or replacement of disaster-damaged facilities. 

Note that although the term “major disaster” is used for presidential declarations, the government also often uses the single word “disaster” when referring to the assistance and programs the declaration can trigger. 

Types of Assistance

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance under disaster declarations falls into three general categories: 

  • Individual Assistance. Aid to individuals and households triggered by major disaster declarations. 
  • Public Assistance. Aid to public and certain private nonprofit entities. This funding is for certain emergency services and the repair or replacement of disaster-damaged public facilities. 
  • Hazard Mitigation Assistance. Funding for measures designed to reduce future losses to public and private property. 

The determination of which programs are authorized is based on the types of assistance specified in the governor’s or tribal government’s request and on the needs identified during the preliminary damage assessment. 

Several other types of individual assistance — such as disaster legal services, unemployment, food security, and more — are provided or overseen by FEMA, the Small Business Administration (SBA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Labor, typically in conjunction with local and state administration.  

FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program

In your legal aid role, you will be concerned primarily with issues involving individual assistance. One of the major ways this assistance is provided is through FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program (IHP). IHP consists of two components: Housing Assistance (HA) and Other Needs Assistance (ONA). In some cases, FEMA aid is intertwined with SBA disaster loans. 

Housing Assistance (HA) 

  • Financial Assistance 
    • Home Repair Assistance 
    • Home Replacement Assistance 
    • Lodging Expense Reimbursement 
    • Rental Assistance 
  • Direct Assistance 
    • Direct Lease 
    • Multifamily Lease and Repair 
    • Permanent Housing Construction 
    • Transportable Temporary Housing Units

Other Needs Assistance (ONA) 

  • SBA-Dependent Assistance* 
    • Personal Property (for repair or replacement) 
    • Transportation Assistance (for vehicle repair or replacement) 
  • Non-SBA Dependent Assistance 
    • Child Care 
    • Clean and Sanitize 
    • Critical Needs 
    • Funeral 
    • Medical and Dental 
    • Miscellaneous Items 
    • Moving and Storage (for personal property) 

* SBA-dependent assistance is available only to individuals who do not qualify for an SBA disaster loan or did not receive a large enough loan to meet their needs.

It’s important to learn more about IHP assistance and the FEMA and SBA disaster loans processes so that you can better prepare yourself to provide legal assistance to survivors after a disaster. 

Other Types of FEMA and Federal Aid

To help people with the multiple issues they can face after a disaster, you also need to know about other forms of special assistance that typically become available from the federal government after a major disaster declaration (some of these also may be available after an emergency declaration). These forms of declaration-dependent assistance include: 

  • Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA). Available for as long as 26 weeks after the president’s major disaster declaration, DUA is available to individuals who have become unemployed because of major disasters. The U.S. Department of Labor oversees the program, but states administer it through their unemployment agency, and rules may differ by state. 
  • Disaster Legal Services (DLS). When the president declares a major disaster, FEMA provides free legal assistance to disaster survivors through an agreement with the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association.  
  • Mass Care and Emergency Assistance. This provision of life-sustaining services may be provided immediately before, during, or right after a declared disaster. Services may include the provision of shelter and food, distribution of emergency supplies, support for individuals with disabilities, support for household pets and service animals, and more. 
  • Disaster Case Management (DCM). The federal government provides assistance to state and local governments or qualified private organizations so that they can supply free case management services to survivors. These services — intended to address a survivor’s unmet needs through a disaster recovery plan — are available to any survivor who has been affected by a declared disaster. 
  • Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program (CCP). This program provides supplemental funding to state and local governments — and to private organizations — to supply short-term crisis counseling services to survivors in the declared disaster area. 
  • Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP). D-SNAP gives food assistance benefits to low-income households with food loss or damage caused by a presidentially declared disaster. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is the lead agency for this assistance and must approve states to operate D-SNAP in a federally declared disaster area. If approved for D-SNAP benefits, applicants receive an Electronic Benefits Transfer card that can be used like a debit card to buy food at most local grocery stores. 

FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program and Policy Guide (PDF) provides additional information on each of these programs, except D-SNAP. You can learn more about D-SNAP in LADRC’s Disaster Benefits guide for attorneys (PDF). This LADRC guide also includes information on many of the FEMA programs. 

A disaster does not have to rise to the level of receiving a presidential disaster declaration to have a major impact on people in the affected area. After any disaster — declared or not — you may be called on to help low-income residents as a legal professional offering pro bono services. 

After a disaster or crisis, disaster-related legal issues typically follow a common pattern. These issues may be addressed through federal aid or under federal or state laws.  

Knowing what issues to expect can help you be better prepared to serve disaster survivors when these needs arise. You can use the list below to identify which issues you need or want to learn more about and how jurisdiction applies. 

Common Post-Disaster Legal Issues, by Jurisdiction

Chart outlining common post-disaster legal issues by jurisdiction (state or federal)

What You Need To Know To Get Involved

Here are some key points to keep in mind if you want to make yourself available to help survivors of any disaster: 

  • Let someone know you want to volunteer. You can start with your state bar or the Legal Services Corporation grantee that serves your area. LADRC’s Volunteer Opportunities and Training webpage explains additional ways to volunteer. 
  • Be prepared. It is easier to get up to speed on disaster-related assistance and legal issues before a disaster than during it. Study the information provided on this webpage and peruse the rest of the LADRC website. Take advantage of training opportunities — not just about federal assistance but also about federal and state laws on the issues that commonly arise after a disaster (see chart below). Some trainings include instructions on how and where to refer survivors for nonlegal issues. 
  • Be available and show up. If you previously contacted an organization (like an LSC grantee) to volunteer, you should receive instructions on how to get in touch when a disaster strikes so the organization can coordinate pro bono assistance. If you don’t hear from the organization, be proactive and reach out. If the disaster is disrupting communications, find an American Red Cross shelter (or other locally organized shelter) near you and get to it as soon as you can. These locations are where outreach for legal aid starts, and Red Cross shelters often transition to FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers. 
  • Be patient. There may be times when your services are not needed immediately after a disaster but are instead needed months or even years later to deal with long-term effects. The key is to be available whenever needed to the extent possible and to know that your services are valuable, appreciated, and consequential whenever you are called upon. 

Life Cycle of Post-Disaster Civil Legal Issues

Table outlining common timeline for post-disaster civil legal issues


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