What Is FEMA's Role in Disaster Relief?

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FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) became a household name after Hurricane Katrina when the agency came under media scrutiny for its failure to respond to victims in a timely fashion. Hurricane Katrina is notorious for being one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in modern US history, with 1,833 lives lost and more than $108 billion in damage. FEMA was unprepared for Katrina.

FEMA was formed under an executive order signed by President Jimmy Carter on April 1st, 1979, with the mission to “lead America to prepare for, prevent, respond to and recover from disasters with a vision of 'A Nation Prepared.'" FEMA was designed to be a governmental agency to provide assistance to all disasters, natural and manmade, by coordinating response efforts from federal, state and local agencies. 

FEMA remained pretty obscure for the first two decades of its tenure. It wasn’t until events like September 11th, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy that the agency's shortcomings became apparent. In the years since the disasters, the federal government has made several upgrades to FEMA, such as making part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Yet the most significant change came when President George W. Bush signed into law the “Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act” in 2006, giving FEMA more authority and better access to resources. This acknowledged the agency's failures and provided measures to better prepare for another disaster of Katrina's magnitude.

After its lackluster response to Katrina, FEMA became known for its role in hurricane relief efforts. But, FEMA does much more than that. If there’s a wildfire, earthquake, terror attack, tornado, landslide, civil defense or any other disaster, FEMA is dispatched to the scene. There are 10 regional FEMA offices throughout the country, which offer coverage for the 50 states, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and other US territories (though FEMA's track record in these territories has been questionable at best).


So How Does FEMA work?

The President of the United States is the sole party capable of declaring an emergency or major disaster. Furthermore, only the governor of the state requesting disaster declaration has the authority to call upon the President to do so. When such a declaration occurs, it gives FEMA the green light to take charge by means of financially and physically controlling the situation. It is then FEMA’s responsibility to act as a liaison between the federal government and the region in question. Its role typically involves distributing supplies, managing resources, and executing a strategic plan that involves working intricately with state and local officials. 

FEMA is essentially the “boots on the ground” when there’s a disaster. It mobilizes the appropriate troops and coordinates the necessary response. Depending on the disaster at hand, that might mean: working with local law enforcement on evacuation procedures, providing tarps as temporary roofs for hurricane-damaged homes, providing and seeking housing for folks displaced by a natural disaster, coordinating food distribution and allocation efforts or ensuring adequate medical teams are dispersed at the scenes. 

FEMA has a difficult role to play. The best advice is to prepare your home and your family in the best possible way, especially if you live in a climatically volatile region of the US. This typically includes the following:

  • Heed local evacuation warnings. This sounds simple but many people insist on “waiting it out.” As Houston learned with Hurricane Harvey, flooding can be especially unpredictable
  • If you live in a coastal area, like Miami or Tampa, prone to hurricanes, get appropriate wind mitigations on your home. 
  • If you live in an area prone to earthquakes, make sure to regularly practice safety drills, taking care to make sure small children know what to do.
  • If tornados are known to creep in your area, have your practice drills down know where to go. 
  • In anticipation of storm season, have extra food and supplies already in your home. At the end of the season, toss what's expired and replenish your supply.

By preparing yourself and your family, you improve the odds that you'll be in a better position when disaster strikes, so that even if you have to wait for FEMA to arrive on the scene, you'll be able to weather the storm.