While on-the-ground support of disaster recovery efforts is a major part of FEMA's charter, the agency provides state and local governments with experts in specialized fields and funding for rebuilding efforts and relief funds for infrastructure, in conjunction with the Small Business Administration. FEMA also assists individuals and businesses with low interest loans. In addition to this, FEMA provides funds for training of response personnel throughout the United States and its territories as part of the agency's preparedness effort.
Between 1803 and 1930, ad hoc legislation was passed more than 100 times for relief or compensation after a disaster. Examples of these include the waiving of duties and tariffs to the merchants of New York City after a fire in the mid 1830s. After President Abraham Lincoln's assassination at John T. Ford's Theatre, the 54th Congress passed legislation compensating those who were injured in the theatre.
The Bureau of Public Roads in 1934 was given authority to finance the reconstruction of highways and roads after a disaster. The Flood Control Act of 1944 also gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authority over flood control and irrigation projects and thus played a major role in disaster recovery from flooding.
This "piecemeal approach" to disaster recovery was troubled by poor inter agency cooperation and bureaucratic red tape.
Many government agencies were still involved in disaster relief; in some cases, more than 100 separate agencies might be jockeying for control and jurisdiction of a disaster.
Congress met the nation’s needs for disaster preparedness and assistance somewhat reactively, by enacting various forms of legislation in response to recognized needs.
Over the years, Congress increasingly extended the range of covered categories for assistance, and several presidential executive orders did the same. By enacting these various forms of legislative direction, Congress established a category for annual budgetary amounts of assistance to victims of various types of hazards or disasters, it specified the qualifications, and then it established or delegated the responsibilities to various federal and non-federal agencies.
In time, this expanded array of agencies themselves required reorganization, as the evidence of their history reflects. One of the first such federal agencies was the Federal Civil Defense Administration, which operated within the Executive Office of the President. Then, functions to administer disaster relief were given to the President himself, who delegated to the Housing and Home Finance Administration; subsequently, a new office of the Office of Defense Mobilization was created; then, the new Office of Defense and Civilian Mobilization, managed by the EOP; after that, the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, which renamed the former agency; then, the Office of Civil Defense, under the Department of Defense (DoD); the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW); the Department of Agriculture; the Office of Emergency Planning (OEmP); the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (replacing the OCD in the DoD); the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the General Services Administration (GSA) (upon termination of the OEmP).
These actions demonstrated that during those years, the nation’s domestic preparedness was addressed by several disparate legislative actions, motivated by policy and budgetary earmarking, and not by a single, unifying, comprehensive strategy to meet the nation’s needs over time. Then, in 1978 an effort was made to consolidate the several singular functions; FEMA was created to house civil defense and disaster preparedness under one roof. This was a very controversial decision. Many felt the coordination of federal preparedness functions would be too challenging, and the needs of developing civil defense preparedness might lose its priority if it was included within the same organization handling natural disaster response. In the end, FEMA was created as the primary federal source for both financial and technical support assistance to victims in need of emergency aid. The controversy was not resolved by the decision, though. Those who managed the mandates of the agency still held their particular points of view concerning which function of FEMA was more important, civil defense or natural disaster preparedness, and the issue failed to resolve itself due to Congress’ prior history of placing value on policy and the budgetary concerns of the times. Eventually, these points of view developed their separate cultures within FEMA, causing a “stovepiping” within the agency, thus creating insularity and preventing a mutuality and collegial sharing of interests and resources. Many feel that the hybrid that FEMA became never was able to meld the two separate and distinct functions, those of counter terrorism and natural disaster management. They feel that this essentially unyielding dichotomy has created the several problems for which FEMA has been criticized over the years.
FEMA was established under the 1978 Reorganization Plan No. 3, and activated April 1, 1979 by Jimmy Carter in his Executive Order 12127 In July, Carter signed Executive Order 12148 shifting disaster relief efforts to the new federal level agency. FEMA absorbed the Federal Insurance Administration, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program, the Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration activities from HUD. FEMA was also given the responsibility for overseeing the nation's Civil Defense, a function which had previously been performed by the Department of Defense's Defense Civil Preparedness Agency.
One of the first disasters FEMA responded to was the dumping of toxic waste into Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York in the late 1970s. FEMA also responded to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident where the nuclear generating station suffered a partial core meltdown. These disasters, while showing the agency could function properly, also uncovered some inefficiencies.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton elevated FEMA to a cabinet level position and appointed James Lee Witt as FEMA Director. Witt initiated reforms that would help to streamline the disaster recovery and mitigation process. The end of the Cold War also allowed the agency’s resources to be turned away from civil defense to natural disaster preparedness.
After FEMA’s creation through reorganization and executive orders, Congress continued to expand FEMA’s authority by assigning responsibilities to it. Those responsibilities include dam safety under the National Dam Safety Program Act; disaster assistance under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act; earthquake hazards reduction under the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977 and further expanded by Executive Order 12699, regarding safety requirements for federal buildings and Executive Order 12941, concerning the need for cost estimates to seismically retrofit federal buildings; emergency food and shelter under the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987; fire control, under the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974; hazardous materials, under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986; insurance, under the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968; national security, under the National Security Act of 1947, the Defense Production Act of 1950; and various executive orders under presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, H. W. Bush, Clinton, and G.W. Bush. In addition, FEMA received authority for counter terrorism through the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici amendment under the Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 1996, which was a response to the recognized vulnerabilities of the U.S. after the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. These actions reveal that no real effort was made to seriously unify the nation’s continuing and evolving needs for homeland security, beyond the act of creating a single agency to manage these different functions. Again, there was no overarching strategy to streamline and consolidate the functions and focus of FEMA. The actions of Congress continued to show a pattern of short-term responses to long-term needs. FEMA had to manage its expanding responsibilities while sources of funding would vary year-after-year, as Congress would react and respond to various natural disasters and national security threats. Various mandates would have their own budgets, and even those were not dedicated from year to year. They were subject to revisions and reallocations as various other needs superseded them, requiring financial adjustments to budgetary limitations.
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to better coordinate among the different federal agencies that deal with law enforcement, disaster preparedness and recovery, border protection and civil defense. FEMA was absorbed into DHS in 2003. As a result, FEMA became part of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate of Department of Homeland Security, and employs more than 2,600 full time employees.
President Bush appointed Michael D. Brown as FEMA’s director in January 2003. Brown, whose previous job was with the International Arabian Horse Association, warned in September 2003 that FEMA's absorption into DHS would make a mockery of FEMA’s new motto, "A Nation Prepared", and would "fundamentally sever FEMA from its core functions", "shatter agency morale" and "break longstanding, effective and tested relationships with states and first responder stakeholders". The inevitable result of the reorganization of 2003, warned Brown, would be "an ineffective and uncoordinated response" to a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 demonstrated that the vision of further unification of functions and another reorganization could not address the problems FEMA had previously faced. The "Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina", released February 15, 2006 by the U.S. Government Printing Office, revealed that federal funding to states for “all hazards” disaster preparedness needs was not awarded unless the local agencies made the purposes for the funding a “just terrorism” function. Emergency management professionals testified that funds for preparedness for natural hazards was given less priority than preparations for counter terrorism measures. Testimony also expressed the opinion that the mission to mitigate vulnerability and prepare for natural hazard disasters before they occurred had been separated from disaster preparedness functions, making the nation more vulnerable to known hazards, like hurricanes. These issues continue to be debated, and have not been resolved with FEMA’s inclusion in Department Of Homeland Security.
In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew struck the Florida and Louisiana coasts with 165 mph (265 km/h) sustained winds. FEMA was widely criticized for the agency’s response to Andrew, summed up by the famous exclamation, "Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?" by Kate Hale, emergency management director for Dade County, Florida. FEMA and the federal government at large were accused of not responding fast enough to house, feed and sustain the approximately 250,000 people left homeless in the affected areas. Within five days the federal government and neighboring states had dispatched 20,000 National Guard and active duty troops to South Dade County to set up temporary housing.
FEMA had previously been criticized for its response to Hurricane Hugo, which hit South Carolina in September 1989, and many of the same issues that plagued the agency during Hurricane Andrew were also evident during the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In the minutes after the first hijacked plane slammed into the World Trade Center towers, FEMA, as well as emergency services all over the city and state of New York, were mobilized. FEMA had activated 25 of the 28 Urban Search and Rescue teams in response terrorist attacks. Five were deployed to the Pentagon. 20 were deployed to the World Trade Center site; however, the New York City Office of Emergency Management was in charge of the WTC recovery effort. FEMA played its largest role in the appropriation of federal funds to aid local and state governments in paying for the disaster. As of 2003, FEMA had received $5.5 billion USD to distribute among local and state agencies to help offset the cost of recovery. Within the $5.5 billion, FEMA was also allotted funds to pay for its own recovery efforts.
South Florida newspaper Sun-Sentinel has an extensive list of documented criticisms of FEMA during the four hurricanes that hit the region in 2004. Some of the criticisms include:
August 2005 saw one of the worst natural disasters in United States history. FEMA received intense criticism for its response to the disaster. FEMA had pre-positioned response personnel in the Gulf Coast region. However, many were only able to report on the dire situation along the Gulf Coast, especially from New Orleans. FEMA was responsible for the evacuation of thousands of people who had remained in New Orleans during the storm, as well as for initial recovery work and appropriations. Within three days, a large contingent of National Guard and active duty troops were deployed to the region.
The enormous number of evacuees simply overwhelmed rescue personnel. The situation was compounded by flood waters in the city that hampered transportation and poor communication among the federal government, state and local entities. FEMA was widely criticized for what is seen as a slow initial response to the disaster and an inability to effectively manage, care for and move those trying to leave the city.
Then-FEMA Director Michael D. Brown was criticized personally for a slow response and an apparent disconnection with the situation. Michael Brown would eventually be relieved of command of the Katrina disaster and soon thereafter resigned.
Katrina was seen as the first major test of the nation’s new disaster response plan under DHS. It is widely held that many things did not function as planned.
According to the U.S. House of Representatives Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina:
Other failings were also noted. The Committee devoted an entire section of the report to listing the actions of FEMA. Their conclusion was:
"For years emergency management professionals have been warning that FEMA’s preparedness has eroded. Many believe this erosion is a result of the separation of the preparedness function from FEMA, the drain of long-term professional staff along with their institutional knowledge and expertise, and the inadequate readiness of FEMA’s national emergency response teams. The combination of these staffing, training, and organizational structures made FEMA’s inadequate performance in the face of a disaster the size of Katrina all but inevitable."
Pursuant to a temporary restraining order issued by Hon. Stanwood R. Duval, United States District Court Judge, Eastern District of Louisiana as a result of the McWaters v. FEMA class-action, February 7, 2006 was set as the deadline for the official end of any further coverage of temporary housing costs for Katrina victims.
After the February 7 deadline, Katrina victims were left to their own devices either to find permanent housing for the long term, or to continue in social welfare programs set up by other organizations. There are many Katrina evacuees living in temporary shelters and/or trailer parks set up by FEMA and other relief organizations in the first months after the disaster hit, but many more are still unable to find housing.
In July 2007, ice that had been ordered for Katrina victims and never used and had been kept in storage facilities at a cost of $12.5 million was melted down.
The telephone number to receive disaster assistance from FEMA is 1-800-621-3362. Survivors of Katrina can learn more about FEMA assistance, and get forms for FEMA recertification, at a wiki web site FEMAanswers.org
FEMA came under attack for their response to the October 13, 2006 snowstorm in Buffalo, New York. Claims state that FEMA officials did not arrive until October 16, three days after the storm hit. The damage by this time included downed power wires, downed trees, and structural damage to homes and businesses. FEMA responded that as per procedure, the Governor of the state of New York had not asked for FEMA's assistance. FEMA Headquarters had been in constant contact with State congressional offices providing them with the latest information available.
Many people of Dumas, Arkansas, especially victims of the February 24, 2007 tornadoes, criticized FEMA's response, not supplying the amount of new trailers they needed, only sending a set of used trailers, lower than the needed quantity. Following the storm, U.S Senator Mark Pryor had criticized FEMA's response to the recovery and cleanup efforts.
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino criticized the agency for the incident, stating "It's not something I would have condoned, and they, I'm sure, will not do it again. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who oversees FEMA, said, "I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I've ever seen since I've been in government." Following the incident, FEMA's external affairs director, John P. "Pat" Philbin, lost a planned position as Director of Public Affairs for the Director of National Intelligence.
According to an article in TIME following the incident, FEMA responded exactly as it had trained to respond. Since 2003, an international PR firm has been paid to hold fake press conferences as part of simulated terrorist attacks. The government had held their last major exercise shortly before the wildfires press conference. At all of these simulations the real media have only been able to watch from afar.
Any time there is a natural disaster FEMA is trotted out as an example of how well government programs work. In reality, by using taxpayer dollars to provide disaster relief and subsidized insurance, FEMA itself encourages Americans to build in disaster-prone areas and makes the rest of us pick up the tab for those risk decisions. In a well-functioning private marketplace, individuals who chose to build houses in flood plains or hurricane zones would bear the cost of the increased risk through higher insurance premiums. FEMA's activities undermine that process. Americans should not be forced to pay the cost of rebuilding oceanfront summer homes. This $4 billion-a-year agency should be abolished.
FEMA does encourage disaster victims to reduce future losses by considering "taking steps to rebuild safer and smarter", advising them to:
Since Hurricane Katrina, some critics have called for FEMA to be removed from the Department of Homeland Security, saying that its position in the department badly hindered the agency's response, and that FEMA is beyond repair. Sen. Joe Lieberman called for Congress to dissolve FEMA and rebuild it from scratch, but within the Department of Health and Human Services.
A Senate panel has also come to the conclusion that it would be better to abolish FEMA. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who was the leader of an inquiry by the Senate said FEMA was in "shambles and beyond repair". The panel called for a new agency which will be called the National Preparedness and Response Authority if FEMA is abolished. The rest of the Senate panel's recommendations included less dramatic changes, such as creating a Homeland Security Academy, which would better prepare FEMA officials.
FEMA currently manages the National Flood Insurance Program. Other programs FEMA previously administered have since been internalized or shifted under direct DHS control.
The Administrator for Federal Emergency Management is R. David Paulison, who was confirmed to fill the position.
FEMA is home to the National Continuity Programs Directorate (formerly the Office of National Security Coordination). ONSC was responsible for developing, exercising, and validating agency wide continuity of operations (COOP) and continuity of government (COG) plans as well as overseeing and maintaining COOP and COG readiness including the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center. ONSC also coordinated the COOP and COG efforts of other Federal Executive Agencies.
NDMS is made of teams that provide medical and allied care to disaster victims. These teams include doctors, nurses, pharmacists, etc., and are typically sponsored by hospitals, public safety agencies or private organizations. Also, Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) teams, composed of officers of the Commissioned Corps of the United States Public Health Service, were developed to assist with the NDMS.
Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMAT) provide medical care at disasters and are typically made up of doctors and paramedics. There are also National Nursing Response Teams (NNRT), National Pharmacy Response Teams (NPRT) and Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams (VMAT). Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams (DMORT) provide mortuary and forensic services. National Medical Response Teams (NMRT) are equipped to decontaminate victims of chemical and biological agents.
The Training and Education Division within FEMA's National Integration Center directly funds training for responders and provides guidance on training-related expenditures under FEMA's grant programs. Catalog available at TED Course Catalog Information on designing effective training for first responders is available from the Training and Education Division at First Responder Training Emergency managers and other interested members of the public can take independent study courses for certification at FEMA's online Emergency Management Institute.
As director: Office of Emergency Preparedness
|James K. Hafer||May-1975||Apr-1979|
|Gordon Vickery (acting)||Apr-1979||Jul-1979|
|Thomas Casey (acting)||Jul-1979||Aug-1979|
|Bernard Gallagher (acting)||Jan-1981||Apr-1981|
|John W. McConnell (acting)||Apr-1981||May-1981|
|Louis O. Giuffrida||May-1981||Sep-1985|
|Robert H. Morris (acting)||Sep-1985||Nov-1985|
|Julius W. Becton, Jr.||Nov-1985||Jun-1989|
|Robert H. Morris (acting)||Jun-1989||May-1990|
|Jerry D. Jennings (acting)||May-1990||Aug-1990|
|Wallace E. Stickney||Aug-1990||Jan-1993|
|William C. Tidball (acting)||Jan-1993||Apr-1993|
As director: Cabinet level agency
|James Lee Witt||Apr-1993||Jan-2001|
|John Magaw (acting)||Jan-2001||Feb-2001|
|Joe M. Allbaugh||Feb-2001||Mar-2003|
As Undersecretary of Emergency Preparedness and Response
(within the Department of Homeland Security)
|Michael D. Brown||Mar-2003||Sep-2005|
|R. David Paulison (acting)||Sep-2005||Sep-2005|
As Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency
(within the Department of Homeland Security)
|R. David Paulison (acting)||Sep-2005||Sep-2005|
As Undersecretary for Federal Emergency Management
(within the Department of Homeland Security)
|R. David Paulison (acting)||Sep-2005||May-2006|
|R. David Paulison||May-2006||Mar-2007|
As Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency
(within the Department of Homeland Security)
|R. David Paulison||Mar-2007||present|