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New York State’s Major Disaster Designation Sets Legal Precedent

March 21, 2020, 3:54 PM

The White House set a legal precedent by declaring a major disaster in New York state from the novel coronavirus, a move that could open up new avenues of federal and potentially military assistance for states.

President Donald Trump late Friday approved the disaster declaration for New York and ordered federal assistance to areas in that state affected by Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. That marked the first time a public health crisis has been determined to be a disaster under the Stafford Act, which specifically defines major disasters as any natural catastrophe, such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake or drought, among others; as well as any fire, flood, or explosion, regardless of cause.

Trump on March 13 declared the pandemic a “national emergency,” a designation that provides significant funding for states but includes more restrictions than what’s allowed for recovery efforts when a natural disaster strikes. To receive a disaster declaration under the act, a governor must request categories of assistance from the president.

The New York emergency declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to tap into the Disaster Relief Fund, which had a balance of $42.6 billion at the end of February. The declaration opened up this fund for emergency protective measures to all areas of the state affected by Covid-19.

“This is the first time a major disaster has been declared for an infectious disease, setting new legal precedent about the interpretation of a natural catastrophe,” Alexandra Phelan, faculty research instructor at Georgetown University Medical Center, said by email. “Given this, other states affected by Covid-19 may seek similar declarations from the president to receive direct federal funding, which FEMA would assess before advising the president.”

In a blog post earlier this week, Mark Nevitt, professor of leadership and law at the U.S. Naval Academy, discussed the Stafford Act and the implications of declaring a major disaster.

“Whether the coronavirus qualifies as a major disaster is significant,” Nevitt said.

The president can do more in response to a major disaster, such as distributing medicine and food, providing emergency medical care, and arranging temporary facilities, Nevitt said. A major disaster declaration also may allow the government to tap into additional military resources, such as emergency work essential for the preservation of life and property, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Cheryl Bolen in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at