Disaster Relief Article

FEMA: What Does it Do and How Does it Work?

Every time there is a hurricane, major earthquake or flood, we hear about FEMA arriving on the scene to provide disaster relief. FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Its job is to coordinate the federal government’s role in disaster preparation, prevention, and relief. Major disasters put FEMA under intense public scrutiny, often generating scathing criticism of the effectiveness of FEMA’s response efforts. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the size of the disaster and number of evacuees overwhelmed the agency. Again, in 2017, when Hurricane Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, the press and public were quick to blame FEMA for its slow and inadequate response. Disaster relief is expensive, logistically complicated, and heavily reliant on public support. The increasing natural disasters we see with climate change prompt us to know more about FEMA. How is it organized? Exactly, what is its job? What can be done to make it more effective?

History Of FEMA

The federal government had a rather piecemeal approach to regional disasters until the early 1970’s. The Presidential Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1973 brought disaster relief under the umbrella of HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development). The following year, President Nixon passed the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, which created the process for Presidents to declare disaster areas warranting federal aid. President Carter’s 1979 executive order merged a number of disaster relief agencies under one federal umbrella. The result was the creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The 1988 Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act amended the 1974 Disaster Relief Act. Now, there was a system in place whereby a Presidential declaration would trigger financial and physical assistance through FEMA. Through the Act, Congress intended to create a method for assisting state and local governments in preparing for and managing disasters.

The 9/11 attacks prompted Congress to focus attention on national preparedness and homeland security. In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security was created. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Congress felt the need to consolidate the national agencies tasked with preventing and managing attacks and disasters. FEMA and 22 other federal agencies came together to form the Department of Homeland Security.

How is FEMA Organized?

FEMA, as part of Homeland Security, is organized into 10 regions with a Regional Administrator in charge of each. A link to the detailed organization chart can be found listed in Resources below. Each region covers multiple states. For example: Region I covers Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Region II is comprised of New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Arizona is in Region IX. In addition to Arizona, Region IX is comprised by California, Hawaii, Nevada, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.

What is FEMA’s Job?

Part of FEMA’s mission is to prepare states and local governments for possible emergency and disaster situations. FEMA personnel are available for training and oversight of local efforts. FEMA financially assists local government with flood prevention efforts as well as in preparation for earthquakes and other disasters. FEMA manages the National Flood Insurance Program. It is also responsible for the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center and the Center for Domestic Preparedness.

FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center is a multiagency center responsible for organizing and coordinating federal support for major disasters. FEMA deploys the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) to disaster sites. NDMS is comprised of teams of doctors and nurses who work in the private sector. They are normally sponsored by their hospitals, private companies, and public safety agencies. In the event of a disaster, these teams are sent in to provide assistance. FEMA also coordinates with the United States Public Health Service’s Rapid Deployment Force. These teams work together to decontaminate victims of chemical and biologic agents, to treat injured persons, and to immunize against disease. Urban Search and Rescue teams are also used to find persons trapped in collapsed structures or stranded by flooding.

A large part of FEMA’s job is helping people recover after a disaster. FEMA offers federal grants to victims to help them with temporary housing, emergency home repairs, loss of personal property, funeral and medical expenses, among other things. FEMA will not pay to restore your home to its original condition or to rebuild. However, FEMA partners with the Small Business Administration to offer low interest loans to victims. Grants for emergency housing are available to disaster victims regardless of income, but FEMA grants for personal property replacement, property storage, and vehicle repair and replacement are based on financial need. Victims do not have to repay FEMA grants.

Criticisms of FEMA

This article is just a quick overview of FEMA. Is it a perfect system? Of course not. FEMA is working hard to improve the quality and speed of its response to major disasters, but disaster relief is fraught with complexities and problems. When Katrina struck New Orleans and the surrounding area, there were multiple problems with the relief effort. There was a lack of communication between federal and local agencies. The number of evacuees was far greater than anticipated. Shelters and services were overwhelmed. FEMA was heavily criticized for ineffective management of the situation. The criticism prompted Congress to create a bipartisan committee to investigate. The committee determined that DHS and FEMA had inadequate numbers of personnel trained for disaster relief. It had other criticisms as well. Emergency response teams were poorly prepared and failed to communicate with other agencies and rescue teams. FEMA’s logistics and contracting systems did not function smoothly and were unable to manage such a major disaster.

Again, when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, some disaster supplies were already on the island, but no one anticipated the magnitude of the damage. The supplies in stock proved to be woefully inadequate. The airport was severely damaged, hampering efforts to fly supplies to the island. The destruction of the electrical grid became an almost insurmountable barrier to recovery. The agency was criticized for mistakes made following Maria. Relief applicants were required to fill out applications in English when many spoke only Spanish. Transported supplies turned out to be snacks rather than real food. The arrival of food and supplies was woefully slow.

Were mistakes made? Was the agency response slow and inadequate? The answer to both of those questions is probably yes. Much needs to be done to improve our national preparedness, both at the local and at the federal level. FEMA will be in charge of that effort. More is needed to prepare us all for disaster.





  • I need all the help I can get for my 2 year old daughter and myself being 4 months pregnant. Our home with all of our personal belongings burned to the ground on friday the 13th 2011 at night. It left us homeless and absolutely nothing left of ours.




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