Most of us have a rudimentary idea of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It is the prime mover for a variety of missions which include:

  • Terrorist attacks
  • Federal assistance 
  • Federal response 
  • Federal support
  • Major disasters
  • Disaster response

But who is FEMA? And what drives the disaster assistance and disaster response process? Also, how does the Federal Emergency Management Agency help state or local government? We answer these questions and more! 

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A U.S. Coast Guard team provides rescue services by boat in a flooded city.

For most of us, our first exposure, or at least the most pronounced exposure to Federal Emergency Management Agency, was during Hurricane Katrina, when local governments could not handle the magnitude of the major disaster with federal aid. Of all the federal agencies that provided disaster relief during Hurricane Katrina, FEMA was the arm of the federal government that was the most iconic, working with state and local governments to provide disaster assistance.   

Join us as we take a closer look at how FEMA started, how it works, and what crucial services it provides.

History of FEMA

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is a relatively new agency of the federal government. It was created during the Carter years, and its purpose was fairly simple in concept: the Federal Emergency Management Agency would step in when the disaster risk is too much for local agencies to handle or recovery efforts would be too costly for the local and state agencies. The governor of the state with the disaster area must declare a state of emergency first before FEMA can step in and take a major role in disaster recovery. Disasters and natural hazards often scale to destruction far beyond the resources of local agencies when they become an emergency, so FEMA takes on the mission of providing emergency resources. New Orleans comes to mind. 

A rescue team strategizes from the rear seats of a helicopter.

Over the years, their resources have expanded to deal with hurricanes, floods, and other emergency resources. The concept of a federal response to disaster relief is nothing new; it stretches all the way back to the early 1800s when there was no organized approach to disaster relief, yet disasters struck states that the local government could not handle on their own. For many decades, a piecemeal approach to emergency relief was used on a case-by-case basis with no organized department recovery efforts.

Reconstruction Finance Corporation

The first major organized effort was an agency called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. While Hoover was the commissioner of the RFC, FDR used it extensively to support the stimulation of the economy during his New Deal years, which were the rebuilding years after the Great Depression. 

Under Hoover's administration, the RFC aimed to provide financial assistance to struggling banks, industries, and agriculture. However, it was during FDR's presidency that the RFC truly came into its own. Roosevelt expanded its scope and influence, transforming it into a key instrument for implementing his New Deal policies.

Throughout the New Deal years, from 1933 to 1941, the RFC became a cornerstone of economic recovery efforts. It facilitated the funding of public works projects, such as the construction of dams, bridges, and highways, creating jobs and stimulating economic activity. The RFC also extended loans to businesses, enabling them to recover and contribute to the nation's economic revitalization.

One of the RFC's notable achievements was its role in rescuing and restructuring banks, which helped restore confidence in the financial system. By injecting capital into struggling institutions, the RFC prevented widespread bank failures and played a pivotal role in stabilizing the banking sector.

The RFC's impact extended beyond the Great Depression, as it continued to operate until 1957. Its legacy lies in demonstrating the potential for government intervention in times of economic crisis, setting a precedent for future initiatives aimed at fostering economic recovery and stability.

Department of Housing and Urban Development

The last part of the piecemeal era of federal disaster funding was placing all decisions under the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) umbrella. This made some sense since it was already in their wheelhouse, more or less. While it was under the HUD umbrella, it was part of the President's Executive Office. This gave him great latitude to fund (or not to fund) projects, which is a double-edged sword. It also places things on his plate that should be delegated. 

A FEMA member in neon orange protective gear clears tree limbs and debris from a roadside after a natural disaster

What is FEMA?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was the culmination of efforts to eliminate the piecemeal approach to recovery from major disasters and bring it all under one unifying agency. It was intended to consolidate several singular functions into one department, one agency. It would be a one-stop shop for all emergency assistance. Some of the most notable examples have been hurricane relief efforts and flood emergency responses. FEMA became a standalone agency in 1979 when Jimmy Carter signed it into existence as Executive Order 12148, declaring FEMA as a federal agency. Part of their original charter was the oversight of civil defense, which meant the agency’s authorities were expansive and powerful., even before they reached cabinet status in the 1990s.

In the immediate wake of 9/11, the political winds shifted and changed the course of how the U.S. handled homeland threats administratively. The Department of Homeland Security was established in 2002 with the Homeland Security Act of 2002, and the Department of Homeland Security began operations in 2003. The modern iteration of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is placed administratively in the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA was unique because it was not removed from another department (i.e., Justice, Energy, etc.). FEMA was a standalone agency up until 2002.

Modern-Day Emergency Response

Today, FEMA encompasses many roles belonging to other agencies or departments before the massive restructuring in 2002, a part of the presidential reorganization plan. While FEMA primarily exists to implement the emergency assistance act and help with major disasters, FEMA employees are also tasked with providing temporary housing, which we saw on a large scale in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

FEMA also coordinates a host of law enforcement functions since so many tasks from the Department of Justice were thrust on them. Also, FEMA manages domestic nuclear incident response efforts that would decontaminate victims in the event of a nuclear emergency. Severe storms are just the tip of the iceberg for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

How Does the Federal Government Help With Individual Assistance?

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency is usually tasked with providing resources and playing a major part in disaster assistance to states, local governments, and other disaster relief agencies, that is not all they are limited to. FEMA also manages a swath of disaster assistance to aid disaster victims in getting back on their feet. 

What kind of disaster assistance? 

All kinds of natural disasters and man-made disasters are included. The Stafford Act is the statutory guidance on what is funded and what is not. Basically, though, if your house and livelihood were destroyed by a flood, a tornado, a hurricane, or wildfire, you are eligible. 

How Does an Individual Apply for FEMA Disaster Assistance?

As with most applications, all disaster relief requests are available on the FEMA website and are surprisingly simple to access and use. The average disaster victim does not need to wade into the deep end about the Stafford Act, the Disaster Relief Act, or anything else. All they need to do is get on the FEMA website, go to ‘Assistance After a Disaster,’ and select the applicable program. 

How Can Individuals Apply for FEMA Disaster Assistance? 

According to FEMA, the Individuals and Households Program offers the following support: 

What is Hazard Mitigation Assistance?

An old saying goes, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Mechanics and maintenance managers know this to be true; preventative maintenance is a far better solution than repairing what is broken. FEMA understands this, too. It is better for everyone involved to mitigate disasters whenever possible to reduce the overall impact if or when a disaster strikes. One of the programs FEMA offers is the Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA) grant program. This program provides funding for states, tribes, territories, and local communities to implement mitigation measures that reduce the risk of loss of life and property from future disasters.

The HMA grant program includes three types of grants:

  1. Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) grants: These grants provide funding to implement hazard mitigation projects before a disaster occurs.
  2. Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) grants: These provide funding to reduce or eliminate the risk of flood damage to buildings insured under the National Flood Insurance Program.
  3. Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) grants: These grants provide funding for hazard mitigation projects following a presidential declaration of a disaster.

To apply for HMA grants, applicants must identify and prioritize mitigation actions based on risk, cost-effectiveness, and the potential for future loss. If you want to learn more about the HMA grant program or other FEMA programs and services, visit the FEMA website

What Constitutes a Disaster Eligible for FEMA Assistance?

The local and state government initially responsible for disaster response efforts. But in the face of a major disaster (the Joplin tornado in 2011, the Moore tornadoes, Hurricane Maria, etc.), local and even state governments cannot respond to such large-scale events. As we said earlier, for FEMA to step in, the state's governor must declare a state of emergency first.  

Eligibility Criteria

First and foremost, the loss area must be in a presidentially declared disaster area. If it hasn’t been declared an emergency by the president, FEMA cannot help. So, there is no one disaster that is a dividing line between eligible and not eligible.

FEMA determines whether it is eligible for federal assistance when a disaster occurs. A disaster must meet certain criteria to be eligible, such as causing significant damage or threatening public health and safety. If a disaster is eligible for federal assistance, FEMA provides resources and support to help individuals and communities recover. This generally includes: 

  • Financial assistance 
  • Temporary housing 
  • And other aid (mostly financial)

So, what constitutes a disaster eligible for FEMA assistance? The answer depends on a lot of factors, including the type of disaster and its impact on the affected area. Some examples of disasters that may be eligible for FEMA assistance include hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, and tornadoes.

What Is the Disaster Relief Act?

To understand FEMA's role better, you must understand the Disaster Relief Act. This act is the primary legislation that provides the legal basis for federal disaster response activities. It gives the president the authority to issue a major disaster declaration, allowing FEMA to assist individuals and communities affected by the disaster. Without the Disaster Relief Act, FEMA, and ultimately the POTUS, have their hands tied about what level of support they can provide at the local and state level. 

The Stafford disaster relief program (Stafford Act) is a subsidiary of the overall Disaster Relief Act.  

What is the Homeland Security Act?

The Homeland Security Act is the U.S. Federal Law which was enacted in 2002 in direct response to 9/11. While the U.S. was busy overseas finding the perpetrators of the attacks, it’s flank was exposed with little in the way of an actual homeland security plan. The Department of Homeland Security took responsibility and created an umbrella organization, consolidating departments and their resources and creating a clear direction toward national security. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security represented a significant reorganization of the federal government's approach to national security and emergency management. By consolidating numerous agencies and functions under a single department, the law aimed to improve communication and coordination among government agencies and enhance the government's ability to respond to threats and emergencies.

What Agencies are in the Department of Homeland Security?  

The Department of Homeland Security, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency falls under, is the third-largest Cabinet-level department, only behind the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs

A few of the major agencies under the Department of Homeland Security umbrella include:

What Greenwood Aerospace Provides Your Facility

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is enormous, employing at least 20,000 people nationwide. It also uses military members on loan from their respective services for joint efforts, and a broad network of emergency managers at the local, county, and state levels. 

Any apparatus this large requires support to keep those pieces moving, and Greenwood Aerospace is here to help support the FEMA mission with service contracts, contracting systems, and a lot more. Give us a call to see what we can do for you and how we can help your organization with your procurement needs

Continue exploring FEMA's disaster preparedness in our ongoing News series: 

  1. How FEMA and the Military Work Together Stateside
  2. FEMA Training for Civilians
  3. Emergency Preparedness Training Through FEMA for Civilians & EM Pros
  4. Facility Support for FEMA Operations