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Disaster Assistance

Guidance For Emergency Debris Removal In Natural Streams

Guidance Document (as approved by FEMA Headquarters 21 Jan 05 - M. Miller)
(Amended August 2006)

This document is intended to provide applicants with a working definition of FEMA regulations pertaining to the eligibility of emergency debris work in natural streams.

To be eligible for FEMA assistance, emergency debris work must be required as a direct result of the declared event, be performed within the declared disaster area, be the legal responsibility of the applicant at the time of the disaster and emergency debris removal measures are required to eliminate the immediate threat to life or improved property. Emergency protective measures must eliminate immediate threats of significant damage, or reduce hazards posing an immediate threat, to improved public or private property.

Implementation Guidance
Eligibility determinations for reimbursement of costs associated with emergency debris removal or emergency protective activities are based upon the following criteria:
  • The debris removal and emergency protective measure must be required as a direct result of the declared disaster event.
  • The clearance of channel restrictions including sediment deposition or vegetative debris consisting of pre-disaster accumulation of debris or sediment is not eligible for FEMA assistance.
  • Emergency debris removal efforts or emergency protective measures must be performed within the designated disaster area and must be the legal responsibility of the applicant at the time of the disaster declaration.

Emergency Debris removal work must accomplish one or more of the following;
  • Eliminate an immediate threat to lives, public health or safety from flooding, or
  • Eliminate the threat of significant damage to improved public or private property through measures that are cost effective. These measures may not be funded in natural or wilderness areas.
  • An immediate threat means the threat of additional damage or destruction from an event that can reasonably be expected to occur within five years. An “immediate threat” is a threat that requires immediate action by a community to avoid continued or impending damage.
  • In all cases, eligible work in streams is limited to the minimum effort required to protect lives or specific public and private improved property and measures to protect only against the immediate threat which is presented. {In general, channel clearance activities or threatened channel restrictions that occurred as a direct result of the declared disaster event, are activities immediately up/down stream of bridges and/or culverts located in close proximity (typically in recent disaster events, no greater than up to 200 feet up or downstream of improved property i.e, the culvert, bridge, waterway construction) to improved public or private property provide the greatest benefit in eliminating or reducing an immediate threat. Note each site should be evaluated independently and decisions made based on surrounding conditions and impacting factors. Gravel bars in natural areas are generally not eligible. Stream bank restoration and channelization of channels in natural areas are not eligible unless there is an immediate threat to improved public or private property.}
  • FEMA has defined the term “immediate threat” for a flood situation, in that an “immediate threat” exists if a 5 year flooding event could cause damage or threaten lives, public health and safety to improved property. This is not a flood which may occur within 5 years, but rather an event which has a 20% chance of occurring in any given year. Typically, an event which produces 1.0 – 1.5 inches of rainfall within a 2-4 hour period.

Before You Begin
In most instances, projects to clear event-generated debris from a clogged stream threatening lives, public health and safety, which may cause further significant damage to improved public or private property  that return the affected eligible portion of a stream to pre-disaster conditions may be eligible for FEMA assistance. To this end, you should thoroughly document immediate post-event conditions at all areas where work is required or anticipated. Eligibility of channel clearance activities not performed during the emergency period will be individually evaluated based upon FEMA's inspection of the channel clearance sites. Maintenance records are generally required to establish previous work on the stream along with elevations or sediment loads of the pre-disaster condition. FEMA generally cannot pay to remove all debris whether sediment or vegetative, only storm related debris which is a direct result of the storm, and will not enable the waterway to pass an additional 5 year storm event.

Pay particular attention to upstream and downstream conditions from improved property and document the proximity to improved property at all anticipated work sites. Be aware that if an applicant receives federal funds from any other federal or state agency to offset any disaster-related debris removal costs, a project worksheet may have to be adjusted to reflect the anticipated co-share as an improved project. This would include advice or monetary assistance from DEP, the USACE, NRCS or County Soils and Water Conservation Districts. It is the applicant’s responsibility to obtain all required environmental permits and approvals, and to ensure that all applicable regulations are complied with during stream clearance activities. If you are unsure as to the agencies you need to involve, contact your FEMA field representative for assistance before proceeding.

The following information sources were consulted in the production of this guidance document. Those interested in additional information on this topic should consult the publications listed below.
  1. Title 44 CFR, “Emergency Management and Assistance Subpart H – Public Assistance Eligibility”, October 1, 1995 pp 478-480, as amended Oct 1, 2003.
  2. “Comments on the Developing Debris Removal Policy -5 Year Event”. Memorandum for Ben Zodikoff from’ Russ Wege, PE, dated Feb 7, 1997.
  3. “Discussion of Issues Related to Channel Clearing” Memorandum for Jerry Dobinson & Ben Zodikoff from Tim McCormick, Partnership for Response and Recovery, dated June 3, 1997.
  4. FEMA Publication No 321, PA Policy Digest, Pg 28, dated Oct 2001.
  5. Stafford Act, Sec 403/407
  6. Debris Management Guide, FEMA 325
  7. Debris Operations, FEMA Pub 9580.1
  8. PA Guide, FEMA 322, Pg. 45-47, Pg 50

Other Contacts for Additional Information

Federal Emergency Management Agency:  www.fema.gov

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: www.usace.army.mil

U.S. Department of Agriculture: www.nrcs.usda.gov

Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts: www.PACD.org

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection:  www.depweb.state.pa.us