State Legislation Surrounding Disaster Relief and Preparedness

September 14, 2017|3:45 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

As Texas and Louisiana continue to recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma left a trail of destruction through the Caribbean and into the southeastern United States. In particular, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands felt the impact of the storm. On Sept. 4, U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp and Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for their respective jurisdictions. A few days later, President Donald Trump issued a federal disaster declaration (later amended) for the U.S. Virgin Islands pursuant to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. On Sept. 10, Gov. Scott requested a federal disaster declaration, which was promptly granted.

Federal declarations allow the federal government to provide assistance and resources to the residents of Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands affected by Irma. In addition to the federal disaster declarations, HHS Sec. Tom Price determined the existence of a public health emergency in Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This determination, made under Section 319 of the Public Health Service Act, allows the secretary to take discretionary actions, including but not limited to modifying certain requirements under Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, waiving certain prescription and dispensing requirements, and making temporary personnel appointments.

As Texas, Louisiana, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other areas impacted by hurricanes Harvey and Irma recover, other states may wonder about their own emergency recovery abilities. ASTHO’s legislative tracking has identified a few recent examples of state legislation related to recovering from disasters and ensuring community resiliency. In West Virginia, the legislature noted the state’s long history of flooding disasters, most recently in June 2016, and created a new state resiliency office to coordinate economic and community resiliency planning and implementation efforts (HB 2935).

Ensuring the ability of property owners to receive assistance and rebuild is another role states play in recovering from disasters. In 2016, Virginia amended its law allowing the electronic filing of land records to require disaster planning for the recovery land record maintained in electronic form (SB 87). Recovering from a disaster can take a long time and states may adopt laws to help with community resilience years after the disaster occurred. For example, New Jersey recently enacted foreclosure protections and mortgage relief for homeowners impacted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (A 333). Finally, a proposed bill in Rhode Island (HB 5476) would create a separate zoning variance process for certain properties that are damaged during disaster declarations.

As the states and territories impacted by hurricanes Harvey and Irma recuperate, ASTHO will continue to monitor legislative activity impacting state disaster recovery and community resiliency. For more information about legal issues during emergencies, please visit ASTHO’s Legal Preparedness Series, which offers a set of toolkits that address key information needs to help public health officials understand and use legal authorities to prepare for and respond to public health emergencies.