What is the Stafford Act? Trump says he's using it to declare 'major disaster' in response to coronavirus crisis

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump said he's using the Stafford Act to declare a major disaster response to the coronavirus outbreak.

"I worked very closely with Governor Cuomo, and this is the first time in our nation's history that a president used the Stafford Act to declare a major disaster response to a public health crisis," he said during Saturday's White House coronavirus task force press briefing. "Never happened before. I'm considering other areas where we may or may not be doing that."

This law lets FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) assist state and local governments during natural catastrophes.

The president can choose to use the Stafford Act when a state governor or local leader determines that damage from a "major disaster" exceeds state or local resources, according to FEMA's website. Only the president has the power to declare it.

Then, FEMA can use its $40 billion in federal funding for emergency response, such as building medical facilities, so states can mobilize more quickly.

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While Trump has used the Stafford Act several times for natural disasters like flooding in the Midwest and wildfires in California, he is technically not the first president to do so for a public health crisis. President Bill Clinton also used it in 2000 to address the West Nile Virus in New Jersey and New York.

In a March 13 letter, Trump said he was declaring the Stafford Act "based on the fact that our entire country is now facing a significant public health emergency."

Screenshots of text messages are circulating in group chats and on social media warning that the U.S. will go into lockdown and that martial law will go into effect because of the Stafford Act. The National Security Council knocked down the rumors on Twitter. "As we saw over the wkend, disinfo is being spread online about a supposed national lockdown and grounding flights. Be skeptical of rumors. Make sure you're getting info from legitimate sources," the council tweeted Thursday.

Click here to learn more about the Stafford Act.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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