The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is responsible for coordinating the government’s role in preparation, prevention, response and recovery from domestic disaster, whether they be natural or man-made. FEMA.gov lists 1849 total disasters declared since 1953, with an average of 32 each year (13). This particular agency has generated a lot of praise and but just as much criticism. Over the course of FEMA’s history, there are many lessons to be learned and FEMA is always looking for ways to be more effective. This paper will examine the history of FEMA, evaluate its performance over the years and pinpoint lessons to be learned and actions to be taken.
History and Purpose of FEMA
Evolution of FEMA
FEMA can trace its origins back to the Congressional Act of 1803, which is generally considered to be the first piece of disaster legislation. This Act granted assistance to a town in New Hampshire following an extensive fire. Over the next century, more than 100 instances of ad hoc legislation were passed in response to natural disasters (12). The 1960s and 1970s brought many disasters that required major government intervention, facilitated primarily through the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration. However, there were complaints about the lack of coordination. It was becoming clear that a centralized and unified system was needed (13). In 1979, President Carter signed an executive order margining many of the separate disaster-related agencies into the Federal Emergency Management Agency – FEMA. FEMA absorbed agencies such as the Federal Insurance Administration, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration. John Macy was appointed as FEMA’s first director and the mission became to prevent and protect the United States from disasters – whether it be hurricanes, tornados or war (12). FEMA operated as an independent agency until March of 2003, when FEMA was placed with 22 other federal agencies into the newly created Department of Homeland Security. This was the largest government reorganization in 40 years (13), under which FEMA was demoted to a sub-department under the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate (14). Headed by Secretary Thomas Ridge, the DHS continued and expanded FEMA’s original mission – to combat disasters natural or man-made, including war and terrorism. As a result of this integration, morale at FEMA declined and the agency lost many long-standing employees. FEMA also lost the preparedness function (but later gained it back), and any functions related to terrorism (14). As a result, FEMA loses funding to other agencies; almost $1 Billion of it related to its previous terrorism functions (14). [pic][pic]
Inclusion into DHS: Curse or Benefit?
There has been much debate about whether or not FEMA’s inclusion in the DHS was a benefit or a curse. There truly are two sides to the coin. On one hand, FEMA benefits from the vast resources at DHS’ disposal – search and rescue, communications, law enforcement, intelligence and the ability to borrow staff from other parts of the Department (1). Hurricanes Gustav and Ike last fall were opportunities for this to be showcased – Customs and Border Protection provided the security and even aerial surveys of damage, the Transportation Security Administration provided commodity distribution locations and staff and the Coast Guard did search-and-rescue (11).
However, some critical of the Katrina response have called for FEMA to be moved back into an independent agency or department (3). Leo Bosner, president of AFGE Local 4060, has called for the removal of FEMA for DHS because FEMA is responsible for responding to emergencies, while DHS is responsible for preventing them (5). The biggest “cons” to FEMA’s...