September 3, 2020

The first act of Federal disaster relief in American history was through the Congressional Act of 1803 following a devastating fire through a seaport town in New Hampshire in 1802. The assistance was in the form of suspended bond payments for the merchants affected by the fire, as the areas of the seaport that was destroyed threatened commerce throughout the northeast. Devastating fires remained a significant hazard for cities in the 19th century in which more ad hoc legislation addressed incidents on a case-by-case basis; most often in the form of an authorized suspension of financial obligations for disaster survivors.

Public opinion began shifting with the rise of the Progressive Era demanding reform and regulations in the early 1900s. Demands rose for greater government action out of response to the lack of federal assistance provided to the relief efforts related to the Galveston Hurricane in 1900 and the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906. Several significant floods between 1849 and 1936 moved Congress to enact federal flood control measures. Federal resources were sent to integrate into the efforts of the American Red Cross and private sector groups during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, making it the first time the Federal Government directly assisted in disaster response and recovery efforts.

Hoover later became President in 1929 and was able to push flood control work as a legitimate federal activity and used it as an unemployment relief measure. The Hoover administration provided a bridge between the Republican Era of the 1920s and the New Deal concerning flood control legislation. The New Deal initiatives involved the federal government in areas of American life that previously belonged to local and state governments. In doing so, it constructed a social safety net to support a long period of growth and prosperity. The New Deal was incremental, as well as experimental, as seen by the quick implementation of the National Labor Relations Act as an alternative solution to address the inadequacies and failures of the National Industrial Recovery Act.

Congress enacted to Federal Disaster Assistance Program in 1950, which authorized the federal government to respond to major disasters. The New Deal era lasted until the onset of the Cold War. By the late 1970s, several areas of the federal government were involved in disaster relief resulting in federal agencies shuffling tasks around as responsibilities were shared. Parallel programs and policies at the state and local levels further fragmented emergency and disaster efforts within an already confusing system facing internal and external political power struggles. The implications of a decentralized concept were not immediately apparent since the system seemed to work relatively well for small to moderate disasters.

The desired objective of consolidating agencies to form a singular overall coordinator of federal disaster relief and preparedness efforts was achieved through the establishment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as the lead federal disaster preparedness and relief agency in 1979. The unanticipated consequences because of federal resources remaining dispersed amongst agencies suggest the coordination effort did nothing to overhaul how disasters are handled in the United States. Policymakers expect this in the process and therefore are poised for the next incremental step, which in this case was through several reforms in 1993, where the reduction of Cold War era resource allocation could be shifted over to disaster relief, recovery, and mitigation programs. Through FEMA, the federal government continues to redefine and reconsider the strategy and tactics needed to carry out the mission and vision of the agency as it relates to preparedness, protection, response, recovery, and mitigation.


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