In 1803, a Congressional Act was passed to provide financial assistance to a New Hampshire town devastated by fire. This is the first example of Federal government involvement in a local disaster.
During the 1930’s the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Bureau of Public Roads were both given authority to make disaster loans available for repair and reconstruction of certain public facilities after disasters. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created during this time to produce hydroelectric power and, as a secondary purpose, to reduce flooding in the region.
During this period, a significant piece of emergency management legislation was passed by Congress. The Flood Control Act of 1934 gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers increased authority to design and build flood control projects.
The Cold War and the Rise of Civil Defense – 1950s
The next notable era in the evolution of emergency management took place during the 1950’s. The Cold War years presented as the principal disaster risk the potential for nuclear war and its subsequent radioactive fallout. Civil Defense programs proliferated across communities during this time.
Almost every American community maintained a civil defense director, and most States had an official who represented civil defense in the State government hierarchy. By profession, these individuals were primarily retired military personnel, and their operations received little political or financial support from their State or local governments.
Federal support for these civil defense activities was vested in the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), an organization with minimal staff and financial resources, and whose main role was to provide technical assistance. However, the State and local civil defense directors became the first recognized face of emergency management in the U.S.
A companion office to the FCDA, the Office of Defense Mobilization, was established under the Department of Defense (DOD). The primary functions of this Office were to allow for quick mobilization of assets and materials and the production and stockpiling of critical materials in the event of a war. FCDA operations included a function called emergency preparedness. In 1958, these two offices were merged into the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.
The 1950’s decade was a quiet period in regards to large-scale natural disasters, though three major hurricanes did strike with considerable impact. Hurricane Hazel, a Category 4 hurricane, inflicted significant damage in Virginia and North Carolina in 1954, Hurricane Diane hit several Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states in 1955, and Hurricane Audrey, the most damaging of the three storms, struck Louisiana and North Texas in 1957. Congressional response to these disasters followed a familiar pattern of ad hoc legislation to provide increased disaster assistance funds to the impacted areas.
As the 1960’s began, three major natural disaster events occurred. In 1960 in a sparsely populated area of Montana, the Hebgen Lake Earthquake (measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale) brought attention to the fact that the Nation’s seismic risk extended far beyond the California borders. Also in that same year, Hurricane Donna struck the West coast of Florida, followed by Hurricane Carla which blew into Texas in 1961. The incoming Kennedy Administration decided to change the Federal approach to disasters and emergency management. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy created the Office of Emergency Preparedness inside the White House to handle the growing risk of natural disasters. Civil Defense responsibilities, however, remained in the Office of Civil Defense within DOD.
Changes to Emergency Management – 1960s
As the 1960’s progressed, the United States was affected by a series of major natural disasters. The Ash Wednesday Storm in 1962 devastated over 620 miles of shoreline on the East Coast, producing over $300 million in damages. Then, in 1964, an destructive earthquake in Alaska’s Prince William Sound that measured 9.2 on the Richter scale generated tsunamis that affected beaches as far down the Pacific Coast as California and killed 123 people – the event garnered front-page newspaper headlines throughout America and the world. Hurricane Betsy (1965) and Hurricane Camille (1969) were both significant in regards to their force and fury, killing and injuring hundreds of people and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage along the Gulf Coast.
As with previous disasters, the response to each of these events was the passage of ad hoc legislation for disaster relief funds. However, the financial losses resulting from Hurricane Betsy’s path across Florida and Louisiana initiated the discussion of insurance as a protection against future floods and a potential method to reduce continual government assistance after disasters. Congressional interest was prompted by the unavailability of flood protection insurance on the standard homeowner policy. Such protection was in fact available in some areas, but it was prohibitively expensive and therefore rarely purchased. These discussions ultimately led to passage of the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968 that created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
The Call for a National Focus to Emergency Management – 1970s
In the 1970’s, responsibility for various emergency management functions were evident in more than five Federal Departments and Agencies, including the Department of Commerce (weather, warning and fire protection); the General Services Administration (continuity of government, stockpiling, federal preparedness), the Treasury Department (import investigation), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (power plants) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (flood insurance and disaster relief). Within the military, there existed the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (nuclear attack) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (flood control). Overall, however, when one looked at the broad range of risks and potential disasters it became apparent that more than 100 federal agencies were involved in some aspect of risk and disaster management.
With passage of the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, prompted by the previously mentioned hurricanes and the San Fernando earthquake of 1971, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) possessed the most significant authority for natural disaster response and recovery. This existed through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) under the Federal Insurance Administration (FIA) and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration (disaster response, temporary housing and assistance).
The scattered pattern of placement of disaster management functions extended down to the State and, to a lesser extent, local levels. There were parallel organizations and programs that added to confusion and turf wars especially during disaster response efforts. The State governments and the Governors grew increasingly frustrated over this fragmentation. In response to the absence of a unified and effective Federal lead agency in emergency management, a group of State Civil Defense Directors led by Lacy Suiter of Tennessee and Erie Jones of Illinois launched an effort through the National Governor’s Association to consolidate Federal emergency management activities into a single agency.
In the midst of these discussions, the accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania occurred, which added impetus to the ongoing consolidation effort. This event centered national media attention on the lack of adequate off-site preparedness around commercial nuclear power plants, and highlighted the role of the Federal government in responding to such an event.
On June 19, 1978, President Carter transmitted to the Congress, the Reorganization Plan Number 3 (3 CFR 1978, 5 U.S. Code 903). The stated and achieved intent of this plan was to consolidate emergency preparedness, mitigation, and response activities into one federal emergency management organization. The President proclaimed that the plan would provide for the establishment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and that the FEMA Director would report directly to the President.
Reorganization Plan No.3 transferred the following agencies or functions to FEMA: National Fire Prevention Control Administration (Department of Commerce); Federal Insurance Administration (HUD); Federal Broadcast System (Executive Office of the President); Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (DOD); Federal Disaster Assistance Administration (HUD); and the Federal Preparedness Agency (GSA).
Additional transfers of emergency preparedness and mitigation functions to FEMA were: Oversight of the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (Office of Science and Technology Policy); coordination of dam safety (Office of Science and Technology Policy); assistance to communities in the development of readiness plans for severe weather related emergencies; coordination of natural and nuclear disaster warning systems; and coordination of preparedness and planning to reduce the consequences of major terrorist incidents.