The history of disaster preparedness and response in the United States goes back to the birth of the country, but really began to take an organizational shape in the 20th Century. Before that time, responses to a variety of disasters were handled on a case by case basis, usually with a Congressional act providing some form of compensation to the victims of disasters ranging from the Portsmouth, NH Christmas Fire of 1802 to the tragic Galveston Hurricane and Flood of 1900.
Predecessors to FEMA brought a Piecemeal Effort to Disaster Response
Herbert Hoover’s presidency saw more of a departmental approach to disaster response through the formation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. One of the responsibilities of the RFC involved distribution of financial resources in the wake of a disaster. The Flood Control Act of 1944 also leveraged U.S. Government resources in the design and construction of dam systems to prevent disasters caused by a variety of river floods in the first half of the 20th Century.
In 1973, the Department of Housing and Urban Development attempted to bring all Federal disaster recovery and preparedness programs under its control through the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration which became the direct predecessor to FEMA. Still, a fragmentation of the effort occurred with over 100 different Federal agencies remaining involved with the disaster response process.
The Formation of FEMA in 1979
President Carter in 1979 signed an executive order merging all Federal agencies involved in disaster preparedness and response into the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This also included all Civil Defense functions transferred from the Department of Defense. The agency provided support during a variety of disasters, including Three-Mile Island in 1979 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
After the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, FEMA was absorbed by the newly created Department of Homeland Security. The agency continues to provide resources for both disaster response and preparedness, and underwent a reorganization after criticism for the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Genesis of the Emergency Broadcast System
The current Emergency Alert System found its origins in the Emergency Broadcast System whose test messages were a part of American culture during the Cold War era. The EAS is currently managed by FEMA with assistance from the Federal Communications Commission and the National Weather Service. All over-the-air radio, satellite, and digital cable providers are required to broadcast messages from the EAS.
The EBS was formed in 1963 replacing the CONELRAD service which provided emergency broadcasts in the event of an attack on the United States during the Cold War. Shortly after that, the duties of the EBS were expanded to include weather-related and other emergencies at the local level. The EBS became the EAS in 1997, and neither service was ever used to broadcast an actual national emergency, but the EAS continues to offer valuable livesaving weather warnings.
The history of disaster response and preparedness in the United States is checkered, but over the 50-60 years a variety of Federal agencies, most recently FEMA and its EAS, have provided valuable resources both before and after disasters.