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The Evolution of Emergency Management in the United States

on September 1, 2021
Associated Press

What is “emergency management?”  According to Haddow, Bullock, and Coppola (2017), “the definition of emergency management can be extremely broad and all-encompassing.”  It is an evolving discipline whose priorities have changed in response to diverse events, political leadership, and scientific advances.

The nature of the events and the responses of political leaders have been the most influential in shaping emergency management priorities and organizational structure.  Since emergency management “deals with risk and risk avoidance” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017), no single event will be handled in precisely the same way.  A terrorist attack like 9/11, which was a major criminal event that involved foreigners and foreign countries, will have a much greater impact on the psyche of the American people and affect a broader range of government departments, than a natural event like a hurricane or earthquake.

The U.S. Constitution “gives the states the responsibility for public health and safety – hence the responsibility for public risks – with the federal government in a secondary role.  The federal role is to help when the state, local or individual entity is overwhelmed” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).

What kind of events can hit American communities?  Natural events include floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, storm surges, tornadoes, wildfires, land movements such as avalanches and mudslides, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, severe winter storms, drought, extremes of heat and cold, coastal erosion, thunderstorms, lightning, and hail.  Technological events can include building fires, dam failures, hazardous material incidents, nuclear and radiation accidents. 

Criminal events include terrorism and the potential use of biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).      

On May 31, 1889, the South Fork dam in Johnstown, PA failed, and “unleashed 20,000,000 tons of water that devastated” the town and killed 2,209 residents (National Park Service,2017).  The failure was caused by inadequate construction, maintenance, and repair.  This event caught the attention of the entire world, and people banded together to help “the Johnstown sufferers” (National Park Service, 2017).

In 1803, Congress passed legislation authorizing federal funds to help a town in New Hampshire destroyed by fire.  This set the precedence for federal involvement in local events.  But it was under Franklin D. Roosevelt “that the federal government began to make significant investments in emergency management functions” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).

The Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Bureau of Public Roads were authorized “to make disaster loans available for repair and reconstruction of certain public facilities” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017) in the 1930s. The Tennessee Valley Authority – established to produce hydroelectric power – also sought to reduce flooding in the valley (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).

The Flood Control Act of 1936 authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “to design and build flood-control projects” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).  Now, “humans could control nature” and promote growth and development in areas previously unavailable (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).

The 1950s and the Cold War brought a whole new dynamic to the discipline of emergency management.  Scientists had succeeded in creating a whole new arsenal of weapons with the capability of destroying the world.  The potential for nuclear holocaust was so great, “civil defense programs proliferated across communities” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).  People built bomb shelters to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.  A feeling of paranoia gripped the entire nation as U.S. politicians engaged diplomatically with representatives from the Soviet Union.                                                                            

The Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) was a poorly-funded department “whose main role was to provide technical assistance” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017) in the event of nuclear attack.  In reality, however, it was the civil defense directors at the local and state levels who shaped the policies and response to potential disaster.

The 1960s focused attention on natural disasters, and the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968 was passed by Congress.  The National Flood Insurance Program was subsequently created, which helped to ease the burden on homeowners located in flood areas and to act proactively before the floods began.  This legislation emphasized “the concept of community-based mitigation” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).  When communities joined the NFIP, they committed themselves to passing local ordinances which controlled development in floodplain areas.  The federal government produced floodplain maps to support these ordinances.

George Bernstein, who became head of the Federal Insurance Administration under President Richard Nixon, strengthened the program by “linking the mandatory purchase of flood insurance to all homeowner loans that were backed by federal mortgages” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).  This led to the Flood Insurance Act of 1972.

During the 1970s, “more than 100 federal agencies were involved in some aspect of risks and disasters” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).  The fragmentation, conflicts, and confusion that resulted were no different on the state and local levels.  When Three Mile Island occurred, these problems became all-too-apparent to the general public.  As a result, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was created by Congress under President Jimmy Carter, with the director reporting directly to the president.

Reorganization Plan Number 3, which created FEMA, sought to establish the following guidelines: FEMA workers “were to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to major civil emergencies” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017); the agency would demand “the most efficient use of all available resources” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017); “emergency responsibilities should be extensions of federal agencies” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017); and “federal hazard mitigation activities should be closely linked with emergency preparedness and response functions” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).

In the 1980s, civil defense became the priority under President Ronald Reagan.  Director Louis Giuffrida reorganized FEMA, moved multiple departments into one building, and placed the agency’s priority “on government preparedness for a nuclear attack” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).  Giuffrida resigned after a financial scandal, which undermined the credibility of the agency.  The new director, Julius Becton, worked to restore “integrity to the operations and appropriations of the agency” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).  Under Becton’s leadership, natural hazards like earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods were given a low priority, confirming that the agency “continued the pattern of isolating resources for national security priorities without recognizing the potential of a major natural disaster” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).

Senator Al Gore, during Senate hearings, questioned FEMA’s priorities and its preparedness in the event of a major earthquake.  FEMA was pressured to create an earthquake preparedness plan which “would later become the standard for all of the federal agencies’ response operations” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).

Under George H.W. Bush, multiple natural disasters occurred – including Hurricane Andrew – which affected people’s perception of FEMA.  “People wanted, and expected, their government to be there to help in their time of need” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).  FEMA was perceived as weak and ineffective.

James Witt was appointed Director by President Bill Clinton.  Witt had extensive experience in emergency management and reorganized FEMA to support community relations, the efficient use of new technology, and an emphasis on “mitigation and risk avoidance” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).

The 1990s heralded a new wave of natural disasters.  FEMA successfully handled the Midwest floods of 1993 and initiated “the largest voluntary buyout and relocation program to date in an effort to move people out of the floodplain . . .” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).

Director Witt became a member of Clinton’s cabinet and persuaded state governors “to include their state emergency management directors in their cabinets” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).  This is how important emergency management had become.

The bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Oklahoma Bombing in 1995 reaffirmed the notion that terrorist events fall into the category of “risks and the consequences of those risks” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).  Emergency management has been an important part of handling similar events.

FEMA’s Project impact: Building Disaster-Resistant Communities heralded “a new community-based approach” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017) that required communities “to identify risks and establish a plan to reduce those risks” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).  The ultimate goal was for the community to “promote sustainable economic development, protect and enhance its natural resources, and ensure a better quality of life for its citizens” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).

Project Impact was defunded under President George W. Bush.  After the unexpected earthquake in Seattle, however, FEMA received a lot of praise from Seattle’s mayor, and the program was restored.  Seattle, it turned out, had been “one of the most successful Project impact communities” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).

The events of 9/11 proved the effectiveness of FEMA when “hundreds of response personnel initiated their operations within just minutes of the onset of events” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).  FEMA was then incorporated into the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security and lost much of its effectiveness and power.  The new National Incident Management System (NIMS) fell under the auspices of the Director of Operations Coordination (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).

The threat of Hurricane Katrina off the Gulf Coast in 2005 prompted President Bush to declare “a disaster in advance of an emergency event for the states in the projected impact zone” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017) and caused DHS/FEMA to shoulder the responsibility.  Their response was a failure.

Obama’s appointee, W. Craig Fugate, designated victims of disasters as “survivors” and developed the Whole Community concept which emphasized “preparedness partnerships that had been developed among federal, state, local, private sector, voluntary, and non-profit entities” (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2017).  Involving people from all sectors of the community has increased the effectiveness of emergency management response to disasters.

The history and development of emergency management prove how events influence and shape government policies, departmental organization, leadership priorities, and government response to national emergencies.  When all citizens get involved, emergency preparedness and response protect communities and mitigate the costs of recovery.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

August 8, 2019

Copyright 2019-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.


Haddow, G.D., Bullock, J.A., & Coppola, D.P. (2017). Introduction to emergency

       management. Cambridge, MA: Elsevier Inc.

National Park Service. (2017). Johnstown flood national memorial pennsylvania.

       Retrieved from http://www.nps.gov/jofl/index.htm.

7 responses to “The Evolution of Emergency Management in the United States

  1. Gersom Clark says:

    Thank you, Dawn, for this historical background of the field of EM! Blessings to you and your family!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Iowa Life says:

    Great photo choice.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Angelilie says:

    I many like your beautiful blog. A pleasure to come stroll on your pages. A great discovery and a very interesting blog. I will come back to visit you. Do not hesitate to visit my universe. A soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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