Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has asked the federal government to declare Flint a major disaster on account of the city’s lead water crisis. That would make $96 million in sorely needed federal aid available to clean the water, fix the broken infrastructure, and provide health care to people who will suffer the life-long consequences of lead poisoning.  But the Obama Administration said no, prompting an appeal from state and local lawmakers who are desperate for extra cash.

So what gives?

Federal disaster declarations are governed by the Stafford Act, which limits when the President, through executive agencies, can declare a disaster.  The law provides for two types of declarations: an “Emergency” or a “Major Disaster.”  Some federal aid is allocated in an Emergency, but much more is allocated in a Major Disaster.

An “Emergency” is defined as “any occasion or instance” that requires federal assistance to supplement state and local efforts and capacities to save lives, protect property, or avert a catastrophe.

A “Major Disaster” is defined as “any natural catastrophe,” that warrants federal intervention, and includes events like a hurricane, tornado, storm, earthquake, landslide, snowstorm or drought. The statute also provides that a “fire, flood, or explosion” qualifies as a “Major Disaster” regardless of its cause.

Defining an event as an “Emergency” or a “Major Disaster” determines the level of federal assistance, intervention, and oversight available to state and local governments, and the origin of the triggering event distinguishes the two.  The trigger in an “Emergency” is the event itself.  The trigger in a “Major Disaster” (other than fire, etc.) is the event’s “natural” cause.  This is one reason why “Emergency” declarations are much more common than “Major Disaster” declarations.

Notably, the President can release federal funds based on a discretionary determination that state and local governments need assistance.  But the President does not have discretion to release the more generous package of “Major Disaster” assistance for a catastrophe that was man-made.  That is what “Emergency” assistance is for.

This is why the Obama Administration has already declared Flint an “Emergency,” and why it cannot declare it a “Major Disaster.”

I suspect the Stafford Act defines “Emergency” and “Major Disaster” this way to protect the federal government from having to bail out state  and local actors who were themselves responsible for endangering the public health.  I’m more confident in predicting that the federal government will bail out Flint anyway, it just won’t be under the Stafford Act.

As a final aside, it’s hard for some of us to overlook the irony in some state lawmakers crying foul in a disaster when the feds decline to intervene. ‪#‎Katrina

-Kathleen Bergin