How FEMA Works

This older home in Wrightsvile Beach, NC, a Project Impact Community, is being elevated to provide protection from a hurricane storm surge.

Photo courtesy Dave Saville / FEMA

FEMA Responsibilities

­Prior to 1979, disaster management in the United States was a patchwork of on-the-spot legislation, local, state and federal agencies and volunteer groups. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controlled some aspects of disaster mitigation, while different government agencies provided insurance for disaster damage. Eventually, more than 100 agencies existed to deal with disasters, and many of them needlessly duplicated the efforts of others.

­President Jimmy Carter created FEMA by executive order in 1979, and the new agency absorbed many other agencies. FEMA took on a wide range of responsibilities that included natural disasters and civil defense plans in case of war. In 2003, FEMA became part of the Department of Homeland Security.

FEMA is tasked with handling all possible disasters. This includes both natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, and man-made ones, such as hazardous substance spills, bombings and war. Although most people associate FEMA with disaster response, the agency has put a great deal of effort into disaster preparation. These preparations include hurricane-proofing homes and helping cities retrofit buildings to make them safer in the event of an earthquake. The 2001 Nisqually earthquake in Washington State could have caused far greater destruction if buildings in the area hadn't been retrofitted through FEMA's Project Impact.

FEMA provides information to home and business owners that can help them take steps to prepare for disasters. A comprehensive list of FEMA advice on disaster preparation can be found here. The list includes winter driving tips, ways to upgrade and improve homes to keep storm and earthquake damage to a minimum, and grant programs that can help people pay for upgrades.

During the Cold War, much of FEMA's effort went into preparing for a nuclear attack. Today, terrorism damage mitigation is a key part of FEMA's duties.

In the next section, we'll find out how FEMA helps when disaster strikes.