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History of FEMA

FEMA's history provides the foundation for our identity as leaders today. It is rooted in the story of a nation committed to finding strength in the face of unpredictable and devastating disasters.

Timeline of Events

Congressional Act of 1803

The first legislative act of federal disaster relief in U.S. history followed a devastating fire in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in December 1802. The destruction of large areas of the city’s seaport threatened commerce in the newly founded nation. In 1803, U.S. Congress provided relief to affected Portsmouth merchants by suspending bond payments for several months.

Creation of FEMA

President Carter signed Executive Order 12127, effective April 1, 1979, establishing FEMA. Shortly after, in signing Executive Order 12148 on July 20, 1979, President Carter gave the agency the dual mission of emergency management and civil defense.

The Stafford Act

The agency’s authorities were further defined and expanded by the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Amendments of 1988, which amended the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 and renamed it the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act). The Stafford Act provided clear direction for emergency management and established the current statutory framework for disaster response and recovery through presidential disaster declarations.

Department of Homeland Security

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 changed the face of homeland security and emergency management and drove major statute and policy changes to reorganize the federal government. In 2002, President W. Bush signed the Homeland Security Act, leading to the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The department was created on March 1, 2003 and united FEMA and 21 other organizations.

Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006

In August 2005 the historic Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Mississippi, causing large-scale devastation along the Gulf Coast, displacing families to all 50 states and resulting in billions in losses to infrastructure and the economy. Congress 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, the Homeland Security Council, and the Secretary of Homeland Security for all matters relating to emergency management in the United States.

Sandy Recovery Reform Act

Federal capabilities were tested once again in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy affected the entire East Coast. The storm’s effects were extensive, leaving millions without power, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes, and causing billions in damages. Subsequently, Congress passed the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 to streamline the recovery of public infrastructure and to allow Federally recognized tribes to directly request a Presidential declaration.

Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018

In 2017, the nation faced a historic Atlantic hurricane season and extreme wildfire disasters. The unprecedented and rapid succession of 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. 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.

FEMA’s Publication 1

FEMA’s capstone doctrine, Pub 1 further details the history, mission, and core values of the agency.