"The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (referred to as the Stafford Act--42 U.S.C. [United States Code] 5721 et seq.) authorizes the President to issue 'major disaster' or 'emergency' declarations before or after catastrophes occur. Emergency declarations trigger aid that protects property, public health, and safety and lessens or averts the threat of an incident becoming a catastrophic event. […] Over the last quarter century, the amount of federal assistance provided through presidential disaster declarations has exceeded $150 billion. Often, in recent years, Congress has enacted supplemental appropriations legislation to cover unanticipated costs. While the amounts spent by the federal government on different programs may be reported, and the progress of the recovery can be observed, much less is known about the process that initiates all of this activity. Yet, it is a process that has resulted in an average of more than one disaster declaration a week over the last decade. The disaster declaration procedure is foremost a process that preserves the discretion of the governor or tribal leader to request assistance and the President to decide to grant, or not to grant, supplemental help. […] Under current law while a governor or a tribal leader may make a request, the decision to issue a declaration rests solely with the President. Congress has no formal role, but has taken actions to adjust the terms of the process. […] Given the importance of the decision, and the size of the overall spending involved, hearings have been held to review the declaration process so as to ensure fairness and equity in the process and its results. Congress continues to examine the process and several pieces of legislation have been introduced during the 113th Congress to adjust the factors considered for a major disaster declaration. This report discusses the evolution of this process, how it is administered and recent changes enacted in law as well as amending legislation that has been introduced. This report will be updated as warranted by events."
CRS Report for Congress, R43784