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Federal Emergency Management Agency
Mission | History | Who's in Charge | Issues | On the Web

Wednesday, December 18, 2002


FEMA is charged with reducing loss of life and property and protecting the nation's infrastructure from all types of hazards. FEMA coordinates the federal government's response to disasters, and makes disaster assistance funds available to communities and individuals after they happen. The agency also administers national flood and crime insurance programs, helps state and local governments prepare for disasters and advises on building codes and flood plain management.

FEMA will also house a new Office of National Preparedness that the Bush administration says will coordinate the federal government's defenses against terrorism and respond to domestic terrorist attacks.


Congress first acted to help a community through a disaster in 1803, after a New Hampshire town suffered an extensive fire. In the next century, legislation was passed more than 100 times in response to hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters.

By they 1930s, several federal entities were working to mitigate disasters, including the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Public Roads and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. In the 1960s and '70s, a series of major disasters - including hurricanes Carla, Betsy, Camille and Agnes, and earthquakes in Alaska and Southern California -- focussed attention on emergency management, which was spread out across many federal agencies and duplicated efforts of state and local governments.

The National Governor's Association asked President Jimmy Carter to centralize federal emergency functions, which he did by a 1979 executive order merging disaster-related responsibilities into a new Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA's first emergencies included the contamination of Love Canal, the Cuban refugee crisis and the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

Who's in Charge:

FEMA Director Joseph Allbaugh was Bush's chief of staff when he was governor of Texas and ran his gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. He was the third point of Bush's "iron triangle," joining communications director Karen P. Hughes and chief strategist Karl Rove. Allbaugh has resigned and will leave the agency on March 1.


The devastating Mississippi River flood of 1993 prompted FEMA to focus less on battling rivers and more on moving families and buildings out of their path. Those efforts paid off in the flood of spring, 2001,when damage estimates were only about 5 percent of the costs of 1993. However, the Bush administration has proposed slashing funds for several mitigation programs, a move Allbaugh has openly criticized.

Some members of Congress are also concerned that Bush's planned Office of National Preparedness could divert resources from the FBI and other agencies responsible for dealing with domestic terrorism.

On the Web:

FEMA for Kids activity pages