Suppose your community is devastated by a hurricane, an earthquake, or even a nuclear disaster. Who do you call for help? In the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the first place your state or local governments reach out to in order to start the process of rebuilding after a disaster.

FEMA was established by U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1979, but the idea of a government agency tasked with aiding the American people in the aftermath of disasters had been around long before then. Historians point to a congressional act passed in 1803 in response to a fire that devastated a town in the state of New Hampshire. The government sent assistance to that town and the idea of federal aid for communities struck by disaster spread. The government began to send help to areas crippled by storms, floods, earthquakes, and other types of natural disasters on a case by case basis.

In the years between 1803 and 1979, a lot changed. A number of federal agencies aimed at helping communities and individuals were established, each having a different mission. For example, in the 1930s, various agencies were granted authority to issue reconstruction loans to communities after disasters. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was charged with developing projects to control floods. The idea that the government should be involved in the problem of natural disasters was growing.

It took several destructive natural disasters, however, for government disaster aid to really take shape. In 1962, the Ash Wednesday Storm battered the East Coast for three days, causing immense property damage. In 1964, parts of Alaska suffered major destruction when a 9.2-magnitude earthquake, the most powerful quake ever recorded in North America, struck Prince William Sound. In 1965 and 1969, communities along the Gulf Coast were devastated by hurricanes Betsy and Camille, respectively. Disasters, such as these, not only caused widespread damage to property, they also killed or injured many people.

The need for coordinated federal relief for disaster victims was becoming increasingly obvious. Finally, in 1979, President Carter established FEMA, which absorbed many of the other agencies that had previously been involved with disaster relief.

Today, FEMA deals with much more than natural disasters. In 2003, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, FEMA and 22 other agencies were combined to form the Department of Homeland Security. The idea was to look at both natural and human-made emergencies as matters of national security. In 2006, because of its inadequate response the year before to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA was reorganized under a law signed by U.S. President George W. Bush. The law gave new powers to FEMA to help it prepare for future national emergencies.

FEMA

Since 1979, the U.S. government agency FEMA has been tasked with helping Americans hurt by natural disasters. Homes in Mexico Beach, Florida, were destroyed by Hurricane Michael in October 2018.

catastrophic weather
Noun

any weather that is very harmful or disastrous, for example a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami.

cripple
Verb

to disable or weaken.

devastate
Verb

to destroy.

disaster
Noun

terrible and damaging event.

earthquake
Noun

the sudden shaking of Earth's crust caused by the release of energy along fault lines or from volcanic activity.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Noun

U.S. Homeland Security agency responsible for coordinating response and aid distribution after natural and manmade disasters.

hurricane
Noun

tropical storm with wind speeds of at least 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour. Hurricanes are the same thing as typhoons, but usually located in the Atlantic Ocean region.

immense
Adjective

very large.

terrorist
Adjective

having to do with the use of non-military violence and/or threats of violence to achieve or advocate political change.