After natural disasters strike, people often look to FEMA for help. However, over the years, the organization has come under intense scrutiny for some of its responses, primarily following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the changes that have come to the organization since can be seen in the federal response to Hurricane Ian.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was first established in 1979 as it was created to help aid in response to manmade and natural disasters. At the time, there was a significant threat from Russia during the Cold War.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed the face of homeland security and emergency management. In 2002, President Bush signed the Homeland Security Act, which led to the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which united FEMA and 21 other organizations as the terror threat rose in the United States.
In doing so, however, it scattered federal funds that would be used for natural disasters so once Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, communication and money were not streamlined, which led to deficiencies in both the kind of help and time of help.
“I think it’s too much to lay the blame of Katrina at FEMA’s feet although there were failures at all levels of government,” said Patrick Roberts, a senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation that has studied FEMA.
After Katrina, the Federal Government reassessed its response and passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 which established FEMA as a distinct agency within DHS, defined FEMA’s primary mission, and designated the FEMA Administrator as the principal advisor to the president.
Roberts likes to call it a “lean forward posture,” meaning FEMA takes more initiative so there is less time between the disaster and the initial response.
“We now have more structured processes for assistance after disasters, and a slightly faster process to do post-disaster inspections and to seek assistance for individuals,” said Roberts. “This is a change in thinking going from we need to recover and rebuild buildings to we need to rebuild critical lifelines: roads, transportation, power, education, schools, we need to get them back up and running.”
Further changes came in 2017, when the United States faced a historic Atlantic hurricane season and extreme wildfire disasters. The disasters transformed emergency management and focused efforts to build a culture of preparedness, ready the nation for catastrophic disasters, and reduce FEMA’s complexity.
Congress provided the agency with expanded authorities to further these goals by enacting the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018. According to FEMA’s website, “the legislation is a landmark law that highlights the federal government’s commitment to increasing investments in mitigation and building the capabilities of state, local, tribal and territorial partners.”