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Federal Disaster Coordination Has Vermont Roots


When President Barack Obama signed a federal disaster declaration Monday designed to bring federal support to the water-ravaged Green Mountain State, he did so under the so-called "Stafford Act." It was named for former Vermont governor and U.S. Sen. Robert T. Stafford.

The ironies don't end there.

Stafford championed federal funding for higher education (does low-interest "Stafford loan" ring a bell?), and the environment, including hazardous-waste sites and the Clean Water Act. He was also ... a Republican. And, like former Gov. Jim Douglas, a Middlebury College grad.

Listening to some of the national GOP voices calling for an elimination of FEMA or placing restrictions on federal funding of disaster relief, you can see the ideological shift from Stafford's days in the GOP to now.

Stafford died in late 2006 at the age of 93.

According to a White House statement issued Monday, Obama's action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster-relief efforts "which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population, and to provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures, authorized under Title V of the Stafford Act, to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in the State of Vermont."

Emergency protective measures, limited to direct federal assistance, will be provided at 75 percent federal funding. The state will have to pay the remaining 25 percent, the release noted.

The Stafford Act, officially called the "Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act," was signed into law in 1988 and was an update to the 1974 Disaster Relief Act. According to findings in the Stafford Act, its intent was "to provide an orderly and continuing means of assistance by the federal government to state and local governments in carrying out their responsibilities to alleviate the suffering and damage which result from such disasters."

In addition to federal funds and supplies, the act also outlined a wide-ranging number of efforts designed to:

(1) revise and broaden the scope of existing disaster relief programs;

(2) encourage the development of comprehensive disaster preparedness and assistance plans, programs, capabilities, and organizations by the states and by local governments;

(3) achieve greater coordination and responsiveness of disaster preparedness and relief programs;

(4) encourage individuals, states, and local governments to protect themselves by obtaining insurance coverage to supplement or replace governmental assistance;

(5) encourage hazard mitigation measures to reduce losses from disasters, including development of land use and construction regulations; and,

(6) provide federal assistance programs for both public and private losses sustained in disasters.

In recent days FEMA specifically, and federal disaster relief in general, has come under criticism from some GOP presidential candidates and politicians. Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has said he'd like to see FEMA eliminated, while GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) wants to see any disaster relief spending on Hurricane Irene offset by cuts to other parts of federal government.

Federal help, though, isn't stopping some Vermonters from taking action to help their neighbors. Here, it's all hands on deck.