The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Today’s FEMA is quite different than its meager beginnings, it has come a long way since 1803, and moved several times within the government structure. Changing focus and structure with each administration, FEMA has managed to move beyond bureaucratic red tape and bring communities through disasters.

FEMA’s beginnings began with the federal government’s passage of several acts that began a disjointed framework of disaster management. In 1803 a New Hampshire town was devastated by fire that required federal assistance. Providing disaster for the first time to a local disaster with the passage of the Congressional Act of 1803, the federal government began its journey in assisting in local disasters (FEMA, 2008).

The 1930’s brought about federal disaster loans to for the repair and reconstruction of public facilities through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Bureau of Public Roads. The Tennessee Valley Authority was the governments first action in mitigation of flooding through a hydroelectric project. The last act that came from this decade was the Flood Control Act of 1936, which gave authority of the designing and building of flood controls the US Army Corps of Engineers (Haddow, Bullock, & Cappola, 2017, p.


The 1950’s brought in the need and the concept of the government providing emergency preparedness, an idea that was picked back up later by an organized FEMA. Hurricanes in the 50’s were no different in the handling by Congress, the response was through additional funds in legislation, but no one agency was responsible for the distribution. The funds were authorized for appropriation through the Federal Disaster Relief Act (Public Law 81-875) in 1950 (FEMA n.

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d.). Though there were 4 major hurricanes that during the 50’s it wasn’t until 1961 that President Kennedy changed the approach to emergency management by creating the Office of Emergency Preparedness which was to help in natural disasters. Though this action was the countries first real step towards an organized emergency response it only provided limited oversight, with the many organizations at all levels of government being disjointed and overlapping in all actions.

The United States now an office of emergency preparedness, but that did not change the ad hoc legislative way in handling disasters. The U.S. Was still reactive and not proactive in response to disasters. Several major natural disasters begin to change the way of thinking within the administration towards natural disaster response. The National Flood Insurance program (NFIP), which is now a major piece of the FEMA today, was created in 1968 by the National Flood Insurance Act. This was in response to a storm in 1962 that completely annihilated 620 miles of East Coast shoreline and the 1964 earthquake in Prince William Sound, with a tsunami that killed 123 people (Haddow, Bullock, & Cappola, 2017). NFIP was the key legislation that started the idea towards better management of disasters, but there was still little action towards one governing body for response to natural disasters.

When legislators begin to see that the NFIP was saving millions of dollars in a flood, the question then began to arise in how to mitigate and manage natural disaster before they happened. During the early 1970’s five different federal agencies handled emergency management of natural disasters and had very disjointed missions and responses to natural disasters. With the passage of the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 the authority was further diluted into 100 different federal agencies handling natural disasters (Abbot, 2017). This same pattern continued through the fragmentation at state and local levels. Governors across the nation begin seeing that there was no clear mission and more than enough red-tape through 100’s of agencies that this whole process needed to change.

With the strong urging and help of the National Governors Association (NGA), an executive order was issued by President Carter. In the Reorganization Plan Number 3, FEMA would now absorb many of the federal agencies that were already responding to natural disasters. The Federal Preparedness Agency, The Federal Disaster Assistance Administration, The Defense, Civil Preparedness Agency, The Federal Broadcast System, The Federal Insurance Administration, and the National Fire Prevention Control Administration were all placed within FEMA. Additional pieces of other agencies were placed in FEMA, including but not limited to the dam safety, earthquake hazards mitigation program, natural disaster readiness and disaster warning systems (FEMA, 2008). The reorganization plan also gave FEMA and agencies within a plan of organizational principles. With principles in hand and key pieces of disaster management now under one organization, they were still not under one roof.

FEMA was formed on March 31,1979 in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident. This accident forced President Carter to issue an executive order and see the need for consolidation of preparedness, response and recovery (FEMA, 2008). FEMA was newly developed and each agency that was consolidated into FEMA, held to their fundamental principles furthering not only the physical divide but the administrative and functional divide. During this administration, FEMA was established in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (FEMA Emergency Management Institute). Political issues were abounded with no real leadership and answering to 23 committees, FEMA became had become a political pull of back and forth for congressional appropriations.

The 1970’s of FEMA ended with a new director named John Macy, who’s focus had to shift the focus of natural disaster with a conservation mindset. This movement began as additional nuclear war preparations were combined in the same departments as floodplain management. The focus became to find a way that a common preparedness for all disasters, whether man made or natural could be developed (Haddow, Bullock, & Cappola, 2017). With this the IEMS or Integrated Emergency Management System was developed, which was an “all hazards approach” to disasters. This decade ended with the same haphazard approach within the agency.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). (2022, Apr 18). Retrieved from

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