Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Updated: February 19, 2021

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    The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is charged with doing exactly what the agency’s name implies. Some companies and federal agencies have lengthy, complex mission statements; the one published on the FEMA official site is as simple and direct as they come:

    Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “Helping people before, during and after disasters.”

    The agency has multiple goals in serving as the nation’s disaster preparedness agency. The FEMA official site says its operation goals include creating a “Culture of Preparedness”, keeping the nation ready for catastrophic disasters, and reducing the overall complexity of the agency.

    A Brief History Of FEMA

    A major fire in Portsmouth, New Hampshire resulted in the very first legislative act of federal disaster relief in U.S. history. The disaster occurred in 1802, with federal relief approved in 1803. This was NOT the creation era of FEMA, but it established an early precedent that the federal government should intervene in times of a major disaster.

    FEMA was formally created by executive order in 1979. President Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order 12127, effective April 1, 1979, establishing FEMA as a federal agency which would ultimately be responsible for both emergency management as well as aspects of civil defense.

    The FEMA mission was expanded and more carefully defined in legislation known as the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Amendments of 1988–itself an amendment of an earlier disaster relief act passed in 1974. This established laws and statutes that still inform the FEMA mission today.

    FEMA has something for everyone–government agencies, private citizens affected by a disaster, and much more.

    FEMA Assistance For U.S. Citizens

    In times of disaster, FEMA is just one of several government agencies tasked with helping out those with qualifying circumstances. The use of the agency generally requires either an emergency declaration or a major disaster declaration from the federal government. Qualifying circumstances will depend on the nature of the disaster declaration by the federal government.

    Emergency Declarations

    The U.S. President can declare an emergency “for any occasion or instance when the President determines federal assistance is needed,” and in such cases these Emergency declarations supplement State, local, and tribal governments’ response with emergency services.

    Major Disaster Declarations

    The U.S. President can declare “a major disaster for any natural event, including any hurricane, tornado, storm, high water, wind-driven water, tidal wave, tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, mudslide, snowstorm, or drought, or, regardless of cause, fire, flood, or explosion”. The key to this declaration is that the President must determine that the disaster was so bad that it cannot be properly responded to without federal government assistance.

    Those who live in an area the federal government has authorized FEMA to act in will have certain types of relief including opportunities to apply for grants and other funds to help recover from the disaster.

    For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency Individuals and Households Program (IHP) provides financial help and “direct services to eligible individuals and households affected by a disaster, who have uninsured or underinsured necessary expenses and serious needs”.

    FEMA disaster recovery programs are offered depending on the type of disaster declaration made. For Emergency declarations:

    • Public Assistance (PA) – this type of help includes debris removal and emergency protective measures. The agency’s official site says this type of assistance “is generally provided on a 75% federal, 25% non-federal cost sharing basis.”
    • Individual Assistance (IA) – The Individuals and Households Program (see below) is the only form of IA that may be authorized under an emergency declaration. Housing Assistance under IHP “is provided at a 100% federal share, while Other Needs Assistance under IHP requires a 25% non-federal cost share.”
    • Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) – is not available for emergency declarations.

    Under Major Disaster declarations the following help is available from FEMA:

    • Individual Assistance: help for individuals/households that can include the Individuals and Households Program, Crisis Counseling Program, Disaster Case Management, Disaster Unemployment Assistance, Disaster Legal Services, Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
    • Public Assistance: this is offered to state, tribal, and local governments, plus private nonprofit organizations “for emergency work and the repair or replacement of disaster-damaged facilities.”
    • Hazard Mitigation Assistance: this is for “actions taken to prevent or reduce long term risk to life and property from natural hazards.”

    What is offered to those who need FEMA assistance after a disaster?

    • Money for temporary housing for those who are unable to live in a home affected by a natural disaster. These funds can include rental assistance, or reimbursement for temporary lodging.
    • FEMA temporary housing units may be offered (when approved for a particular incident) when citizens cannot use rental assistance because of a general lack of available housing in the affected area.
    • Money for the repair or replacement of owner-occupied homes (primary residences only).
    • Support/funding for “other uninsured or under-insured disaster-caused expenses and serious needs”. These needs can include repair or replacement of personal property, repair/replacement of vehicles, help with moving and storage, medical, dental, child care, funeral expenses, and more.

    The agency also provides referrals for those who need other assistance–a FEMA rep may advise homeowners to contact the Small Business Administration, for example, for information about grants to homeowners in federally-declared disaster areas.

    Yes, the Small Business Administration can and does help homeowners in times of a federal disaster and FEMA routinely refers people to them.

    Other Roles Of FEMA

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency addresses a variety of areas. Disaster preparedness is one of those, and FEMA has programs and resources in the following areas:

    • Training and Education
    • National Preparedness Goal
    • National Incident Management System
    • National Planning Frameworks
    • Exercises
    • Continuity Resources

    FEMA conducts training in a variety of areas including disaster prep, firefighting, homeland defense, and many others. FEMA operations, schools, and other resources in this area address a wide range of concerns.

    National Fire Academy

    The National Fire Academy provides technical and leadership training for local first responders. Training includes in-residence and off-site classes, distance learning, and all courses are accredited by the American Council on Education, with continuing education credits via the International Association for Continuing Education and Training.

    Center for Domestic Preparedness

    Providing training for those responsible for incident management, mass casualty response, and emergency response to a catastrophic natural disaster or terrorist act.

    Emergency Management Institute

    This institute is described as the “national focal point for the development and delivery of emergency management training” at all levels of government from federal to tribal and territorial governments.

    The National Domestic Preparedness Consortium (NDPC)

    This is a partnership of nationally-recognized organizations “whose membership is based on the urgent need to address the counter-terrorism preparedness needs of the nation’s emergency first responders” for “all hazards” including weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological weapons, etc.

    FEMA Continuing Training Grants

    This grant program supports training for “urgent and emerging preparedness gaps for the nation.”

    FEMA Risk Management Programs

    FEMA risk management programs are designed to “identify, assess and prioritize possible risks and minimize potential losses”. These programs include”

    • Hazard Mitigation Planning
    • National Risk and Capability Assessments
    • Building Science
    • Dam Safety
    • Earthquake Risk
    • Hurricane Planning and Response
    • Safe Rooms
    • Windstorm Impact Reduction

    For more information on any of these programs, visit the FEMA official site.


    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News


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