History of FEMA

FEMA has a long and rich history, it has existed in one form or another for over 200 years. During this time it gained much power and simultaneously U.S. citizens lost many of their liberties.

The Congressional Act of 1803

FEMA nowadays is the most powerful organization in the world, its roots go back to the Congressional Act of 1803. This act, is considered the first piece of disaster legislation, it provided support to a New Hampshire city after a major fire. In the century that followed, ad hoc legislation was passed over 100 times in response to natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and hurricanes.

In the 1930s, when the federal approach to problems became popular, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation was given permission to make disaster loans for repair and reconstruction of certain public buildings after an earthquake, and later, other types of disasters.

In 1934, the Bureau of Public Road was given permission to provide funding for bridges and highways damaged by natural disasters. The Flood Control Act in 1936 created the National Flood Program. It created a federal responsibility to provide support in flooding mitigation programs along the Mississippi River and other major rivers.

Civil Defense

During World War II, Civil Defense programs, such as emergency shelter and air raid warning systems were created to protect citizens.

The Disaster Relief Act of 1950 gave the president authority to issue disaster declarations, authorizing federal agencies to provide direct support to state and local governments.

The Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 established a nationwide system of civil defense agencies, and defense drill became routine in schools, government agencies and other organizations. The Federal Civil Defense Act was amended to include state government responsibility.

Federal Disaster Assistance Administration

During the 1960s and early 1970s the United States was hit by massive disasters which required major federal response and recovery operations by the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration, created within the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

  • Hurricane Carla struck in 1962
  • the Alaskan Earthquake hit in 1964
  • Hurricane Betsy in 1965
  • Hurricane Camille in 1969
  • the San Fernando Earthquake rocked Southern California in 1971
  • Hurricane Agnes in 1972

These events increased the attention on the issue of natural disasters and brought about increased legislation. In 1968, the National Flood Insurance Act offered new flood protection to homeowners, and in 1974 the Disaster Relief Act firmly created the process of Presidential disaster declarations.

The Disaster Relief Act in 1969 created a federal coordinating officer to represent the president in the relief effort. Extended in 1974, the Act authorized individual and family assistance through state and local government.

However, emergency and disaster activities were still fragmented. When hazards associated with nuclear power plants and the transportation of hazardous substances were added to natural disasters, more than 100 federal agencies were involved in some aspect of disasters, hazards, and emergencies. Many parallel programs and policies existed at the state and local level, compounding the complexity of federal disaster relief efforts.

In 1978, the National Governor’s Association sought to decrease the number of agencies with whom state and local governments were forced to work. They asked President Jimmy Carter to centralize federal emergency functions.

Establishment of FEMA

On 1 April, 1979, President Carter signed Executive Order Number 12148 which merged many of the separate disaster-related responsibilities into a new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Among other agencies, FEMA absorbed:

  • the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration activities from HUD
  • the Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration
  • the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program
  • the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration
  • the Federal Insurance Administration

John Macy was given the position as FEMA’s first director. Macy emphasized the similarities between natural hazards preparedness and the civil defense activities. FEMA began development of an Integrated Emergency Management System with an all-hazards approach that included direction, control, and warning systems which are common to the full range of emergencies, from small isolated events to the ultimate emergency war.


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