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History of Federal Disaster Policy

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Winter 2015   


        Federal Disaster Policy: Toward a More Resilient Future
        The Research Basis for Disaster Resilience
        Preparing for the Next Disaster: Three Models of Building Resilient Communities

History of Federal Disaster Policy

After nearly 150 years (1803–1947) of adhoc disaster responses and limited mitigation activities, the federal government has incrementally expanded relief, recovery, and preparedness policies through permanent funding and institutions, but policy reform has remained largely reactive to large-scale disasters or clusters of disasters.1

    • 1947: Congress charged the War Assets Administration and the Federal Works Agency with delivering surplus federal supplies to areas in need.2
    • 1950: The Housing and Home Finance Administration, HUD’s predecessor, took charge of disaster assistance until the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) assumed responsibility in 1952.3
    • 1950 to 1953: The Disaster Relief Act of 1950 and its amendments established, for the first time, a permanent source of federal disaster relief funds. These funds were initially designated for the repair of local government properties. A 1951 amendment to the act provided support for emergency housing, and a 1953 amendment authorized the donation of federal surplus supplies to individuals.4
    • 1958: The Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization replaced FCDA and was assigned relief and response activities.5
    • 1961: The Office of Emergency Planning was charged with coordinating civil defense and disaster-related emergency efforts.6
    • 1966: The Disaster Relief Act expanded federal relief designated specifically for recovery.7
    • 1968: Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program to offer flood insurance in communities where private insurers did not provide coverage as long as the communities adopted required floodplain management policies.8
    • 1970 to 1974: The Disaster Relief Act and its amendments codified and expanded previous incremental policies with an emphasis on assistance to individuals and hazard mitigation. The amendments established procedures for defining emergencies (separate from major disasters) and increased available assistance.9 They also emphasized government preparation to handle natural or manmade hazards.10
    • 1979: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was charged with coordinating federal disaster policy including preparation, mitigation, response, and recovery.11
    • 1988: The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act established the statutory authority for presidential disaster and emergency declarations as well as the resulting federal assistance.12
    • 1993: Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program funds were appropriated following Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Iniki, and Typhoon Omar and thereafter become a major part of federal recovery assistance.13
    • 2002: The Homeland Security Act placed FEMA under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security along with 22 other federal agencies, effective March 2003.14
    • 2006: The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act reorganized FEMA by redefining its mission, consolidating its emergency management functions, and granting it greater autonomy.15
    • 2011: FEMA developed the National Disaster Recovery Framework to coordinate predisaster planning and facilitate postdisaster response and recovery across all levels of government.16
    • 2012: The Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force coordinated local, state, and federal recovery efforts and developed model resilience policies for vulnerable communities.17
    • 2013: HUD hosted Rebuild by Design, a HUD competition that generated ideas to make the New York-New Jersey region more environmentally and economically resilient.18
    • 2014: The National Disaster Resilience Competition, an ongoing competition modelled on Rebuild by Design, made $1 billion available to communities to develop innovative resilience projects and plan for the effects of extreme weather and climate change.19

  1. Saundra K. Schneider. 1995. Flirting with Disaster: Public Management in Crisis Situations, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 19.
  2. David A. Moss. 1999. “Courting Disaster? The Transformation of Federal Disaster Policy since 1803,” in Kenneth A. Froot, ed. The Financing of Catastrophe Risk, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 315.
  3. Gaines M. Foster. 2000. The Demands of Humanity: Army Medical Disaster Relief, Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 134.
  4. Moss, 316.
  5. Schneider, 21.
  6. Ibid., 22.
  7. Anna Marie Baca. 2008. “History of Disaster Legislation,” On Call: Disaster Reserve Workforce News (September), 1.
  8. U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. 2011. “National Flood Insurance Program: Answers to Questions About the NFIP,” 1.
  9. Moss, 317.
  10. Schneider, 21.
  11. U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. “About the Agency” ( Accessed 9 December 2014.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Interview with Jan Opper, October 2014.
  14. U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
  15. Keith Bea. 2007. “Federal Emergency Management Policy Changes After Hurricane Katrina: A Summary of Statutory Provisions,” Congressional Research Service, 5.
  16. U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. “National Disaster Recovery Framework” ( Accessed 9 December 2014.
  17. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 2013. “Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force Releases Rebuilding Strategy,” 19 August press release.
  18. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 2014. “HUD Announces Winning Proposals from the ‘Rebuild by Design’ Competition,” 2 June press release.
  19. The White House. 2014. “Fact Sheet: National Resilience Competition,” 14 June press release.


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