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When Disasters Aren’t Local: The Stafford Act in a Post-COVID-19 World


Unlike weather events such as major snowstorms or hurricanes, which are the commonly thought of disasters within the parameters of the Stafford Act, infectious diseases, by their nature, share similar disastrous impacts that extend far beyond a small geographic segment of the country. While delegating disaster response to local governments worked for many weather disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the threats to our nation that exceed the capabilities of local and state governments. Similarly, the pandemic has highlighted how public health emergencies can exceed the scope of existing disaster legislation, limiting the effectiveness of the national response, and necessitating a rethinking of the legislative emergency and disaster response in the United States.

This Article calls for unity among local and state government disaster and emergency responses that can span the nation if necessary. While local emergency managers will continue to be the foundation of a community’s disaster response system, a new and improved system that leverages an updated Stafford Act, which out-lines the available aid and resources for addressing various crises, will ensure that science—and not state, local, or tribal political considerations—drive decision making and collective action in response to occurrences similar to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This Article begins by analyzing the historical context and legislative intent that led to the passage of the Stafford Act and the legislative intent that frames its current structure. Additionally, this Article explores the key features, investigates the use of the Stafford Act in the COVID-19 response, and highlights the major limitations of the Act that prevent it from being successfully applied to various types of emergencies and disasters. The federal government has historically amended disaster response legislation to address previous shortcomings highlighted by the occurrence of a disaster. Ultimately, this Article argues for the improvement of the Stafford Act to address the inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic through amendments addressing accountability of leadership, coordination between local, state, and federal government, and improved healthcare for more effective and applicable responses to public health and pandemic emergencies that necessitate a whole government approach.