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What is FEMA Essay

The organization that existed before FEMA, the FDAA, was largely ineffective as there were large problems of cooperation and too much local authority where state responders could impede federal decisions. In response to pressure, Jimmy Carter created FEMA in 1978, which 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, 2008) FEMA was also given powers of oversight or supervision of the nation’s Civil Defence, a function which had belonged to the Department of Defence’s Defence Civil Preparedness Agency.

Response-based approach forged from WWII and Cold War policy focused entirely on command and control and was inflexible in dealing or preventing non-military disasters. The creation of FEMA was supposed to put an end to this approach and replace it with an integrated approach involving many networked actors.

This established FEMA’s objective as a federal agency, which is to prepare the nation for whatever comes along (Hudak, 2002). In the past, “whatever” implied only natural disasters, but after September 11,2001, it now applies to all types of disasters, natural and man-made. According to Baron (2002), FEMA’s role is to assist when the local and state jurisdiction are no longer able to handle a disaster situation alone. FEMA is also there to provide housing through contracted agencies and designed emergency task force groups (Baron, 2002:28).

During or following a natural disaster, FEMA’s responsibility is to disperse information to victims and the public as soon as possible (Hudak, 2002). It is imperative that media sources are reliable, because FEMA depends on them just as much as the public. In order to get the right information for emergency response FEMA, needs to have reliable sources from the media (Baron, 2002; Hudak).

It is FEMA’s responsibility to provide programs that prepare the nation for natural disasters (Wilfred et al., 1999). This preventative work is targeted at two major groups, the local government and the general public (Hudak, 2002). FEMA’s first approach for preparedness is through mitigation (Hudak; Wilfred et al.). Through mitigation, FEMA looks at different types of disaster scenarios and determines how to lessen the impact, should such disasters take place.

According to FEMA’s website, FEMA (2008) prepares individuals, families, and communities through preventative work. For example, FEMA helps by providing the public with preventive plans for moving objects in a house in order to create a “safer” environment in case of an earthquake and stipulates building requirements for the city and local government.

One of FEMA’s primary goals is mitigation for construction of buildings, flood insurance, family disaster Preparedness Plan, and the Citizen Corps (Hudak, 2002). FEMA is directly in charge of prevention, with the goal of lessening the impact of the effects of disasters both man-made and natural. This helps to prevent adverse impacts in the chance that disasters do occur.

There are a number of tools that FEMA uses for enforcing public and local governments about prevention. According to Hudak (2002), an employee for FEMA, this is done in eight different ways: news releases, public service announcements, news conferences, public awareness campaigns, news media interviews, radio and television programs, internet sites, and publications. These are the same communications tools that are used by other government and agencies to produce public awareness. According to FEMA these are the most reliable sources to get information out quickly and efficiently (Hudak, 2002).

During a disaster, FEMA uses the types of communication tools mentioned above to get information to the emergency teams that are responding to the disaster and provide information to disaster victims about where they can go for aid (Hudak, 2002; Wilfred et al., 1999). FEMA is responsible for connecting victims to the resources they need and relies heavily on the media for this task (FEMA, 2005). This information informs us victims of a disaster, available assistance, methods of applying for assistance, and health and safety information (Hudak, 2002).

Response History of FEMA

FEMA has had several problems their ability to respond to natural disasters. According to a study conducted by Ward, Wamsley, Schroeder, and Robins (2000), on FEMA’s network organizational development, FEMA has had a history of problems in disaster response, and by the late 1980s, its reputation had been severely damaged by poor response efforts and lack of timeliness. One example occurred in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo hit the coast of South Carolina. Victims were left to fend for themselves due to lack of coordination and slow response (Iwan et al., 1999; Ward et al., 2000). Democrat Senator Hollings stated on the floor that FEMA’s response was less than adequate in handling disaster situations.

In 1990, when the earthquake hit Point Loma Prieta in California, FEMA was bombarded by over 70,000 applications for relief from residents from disaster relief (Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, 1992). FEMA was said to have failed the victims of the quake and to have left thousands of American residences without any form of support (Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report; Ward et al., 2000). California representative Norman Y. Mineta (D) publicly stated his intention to personally deal with FEMA and challenge Congress to rebuild the system (Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report; Ward et al.).

A report was published in June 1992 by the House Appropriations Committee that strongly criticized FEMA for its emergency management and lacking natural disaster response (Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, 1992; Iwan et al., 1999 Ward et al., 2000). Two months after the report was published, FEMA’s reputation worsened when Hurricane Andrew hit Southern Florida, directly affecting over 250,000 people (Iwan et al.). FEMA’s response to the disaster was said to be a disgrace and a failure (Ward et al.).

According to the Ward et al., the president decided that FEMA could not handle Hurricane Andrew and gave the responsibility to the Secretary of Transportation and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Ward et al., 2000). By 1992, it was evident that Congress would re-assign FEMA to other parts of the government (Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, 1992).

In 2002, when Colorado was hit with major wild fires leaving thousands of burn victims and over 300 homeless, FEMA was on the front lines. According to Tony Stohl, executive director of the Southwest Regional Community Resources, FEMA was the backbone for the relief efforts (Baron, 2002). FEMA contracted out to two different companies including Southwest Regional Community Resources. These agencies provided aid within 15 minutes following the disaster, providing housing and other assistance (Baron, 2002).

In March of 2003, FEMA was made part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This happened following the September 11, 2001, response to the terrorist attacks. It was also a response to the anthrax scare in Florida, fall of 2001 and the 2002 Olympics preparations in Salt Lake City, according to a report published by the National Fire Programs Division of the U.S. Fire Administration (FEMA, 2008). According to the director of FEMA, this change helped to make FEMA operate more effectively in the chance of an emergency.

According to Schwab (2005), FEMA was there, ready to help immediately after a tornado hit Stockton, a small town in Missouri (population 1,940) on May 3 of 2003. Mayor Ralph Steele of Stockton said that their town would not have made it without the help of FEMA and that FEMA was there for them before they could even think about what other services they needed.  After Hurricane Charley hit Florida in 2004, many were left without power, homes, or jobs. FEMA opened a gymnasium to provide shelter and begin economic assistance within the first 4 days. One of the victims who had been waiting in a line for hours to apply for assistance stated that he knew that the process would be slow but that he was glad to get any help at all.

In 2004 FEMA was reported to have given $31 billion to 12,000 residents after the Hurricane Frances. According to Hall (2005), money was given without proof of damages or identification of residents. FEMA has had a history of ups and downs when it comes to disaster relief. According to the literature, FEMA has both aided victims of disaster but has at times failed to provide sufficient support.

Recent Research on FEMA

In the last 5 years, there have been over 30 research articles published concerning FEMA. Few discuss FEMA’s response to natural disasters. The majority of the articles are concerning FEMA’s preventative work and mitigation. In 2000, according to Hartman (2000), FEMA released recommendations regarding statistics on earthquake loss estimations for the entire nation. The study estimated earthquake losses and probability for future earthquakes according to factors such as regional characteristics, location, and intensity of potential earthquakes. This study provided a great resource for cities that were not prepared for natural disasters.

In 2002, Kunnath and Malley (2002) did a study on FEMA’s recent findings on construction issues and how they effected loss during the 1994 Northridge quake. The study showed methods for cost-effective inspection, evaluation, building repair and reconstruction, and overall rehabilitation of the city (Kunnath & Malley, 2002).


In 26 years since FEMA was first created, FEMA has been at the forefront of the nation’s natural disasters. FEMA provided aid for victims of the 1993 and 1997 the Midwest floods, the 1997 Northridge earthquake, the terrorist attaches of 2001, the space shuttle disaster and the hurricanes of 2004 (Brown, 2005).

FEMA has aided in over 65 disasters in 46 states, providing people with over $4.9 billion in relief aid (Brown). Through these different and complex disasters, FEMA has been there to aid the American people. FEMA has also been the target of some tough critique (Ward et al., 2000; McCoy, 2004). According to the Stafford Act of 2000, in the case of a national disaster the federal government is responsible for aiding citizens in an orderly and timely manner (FEMA, 2005).

FEMA was developed to be the central point of contact determining which “natural disaster” (such as floods, droughts, hurricanes) response efforts were to be organized and coordinated to help local and state efforts (Ward et al, 2000). As a secondary concern, the Carter Administration sought for FEMA to have responsibility for aid response during a nuclear war or in the case of terrorist attacks (Ward et al.).

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