The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, was created by the United States government to help people and communities deal with natural disasters. Find out how it has changed to include even more services.


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Social Studies, Civics


Homes Damaged by Hurricane Michael

Since 1979, the U.S. government agency FEMA has been tasked with helping Americans hurt by natural disasters. Homes in Mexico Beach, Florida, were destroyed by Hurricane Michael in October 2018.

Photograph by Chris O'Meara, Pool/AP
Since 1979, the U.S. government agency FEMA has been tasked with helping Americans hurt by natural disasters. Homes in Mexico Beach, Florida, were destroyed by Hurricane Michael in October 2018.

Suppose your community is devastated by a hurricane, an earthquake, or even a nuclear disaster. Who do you call for help? In the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the first place your state or local governments reach out to in order to start the process of rebuilding after a disaster.

FEMA was established by U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1979, but the idea of a government agency tasked with aiding the American people in the aftermath of disasters had been around long before then. Historians point to a congressional act passed in 1803 in response to a fire that devastated a town in the state of New Hampshire. The government sent assistance to that town and the idea of federal aid for communities struck by disaster spread. The government began to send help to areas crippled by storms, floods, earthquakes, and other types of natural disasters on a case by case basis.

In the years between 1803 and 1979, a lot changed. A number of federal agencies aimed at helping communities and individuals were established, each having a different mission. For example, in the 1930s, various agencies were granted authority to issue reconstruction loans to communities after disasters. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was charged with developing projects to control floods. The idea that the government should be involved in the problem of natural disasters was growing.

It took several destructive natural disasters, however, for government disaster aid to really take shape. In 1962, the Ash Wednesday Storm battered the East Coast for three days, causing immense property damage. In 1964, parts of Alaska suffered major destruction when a 9.2-magnitude earthquake, the most powerful quake ever recorded in North America, struck Prince William Sound. In 1965 and 1969, communities along the Gulf Coast were devastated by hurricanes Betsy and Camille, respectively. Disasters, such as these, not only caused widespread damage to property, they also killed or injured many people.

The need for coordinated federal relief for disaster victims was becoming increasingly obvious. Finally, in 1979, President Carter established FEMA, which absorbed many of the other agencies that had previously been involved with disaster relief.

Today, FEMA deals with much more than natural disasters. In 2003, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, FEMA and 22 other agencies were combined to form the Department of Homeland Security. The idea was to look at both natural and human-made emergencies as matters of national security. In 2006, because of its inadequate response the year before to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA was reorganized under a law signed by U.S. President George W. Bush. The law gave new powers to FEMA to help it prepare for future national emergencies.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
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Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
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Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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