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Definition: FEMA from Collins English Dictionary

n acronym for

1 Federal Emergency Management Agency: a US government body intended to coordinate responses to a disaster in the US itself

Summary Article: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
From Encyclopedia of Environment and Society

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER created FEMA in Reorganization Plan Three of 1979, with the intent to make FEMA the single federal response agency for disasters, thus reducing any confusing, overlapping, and duplicative efforts from other agencies. This urgency was underscored by the March 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, which revealed shortcomings in federal, state, and local planning for emergencies. The executive order forming FEMA was signed days after the Three Mile Island incident.

FEMA thus took on the Defense Department’s civil preparedness programs; Housing and Urban Development’s Flood Insurance program; fire prevention programs and community preparedness programs from the Department of Commerce; and dam safety, earthquake, and terrorism programs from the Executive Office of the President. The first director of FEMA, John Macy, sought to knit together these disparate functions through a program called the Integrated Emergency Management System (IEMS) that would serve a range of emergencies, from natural disasters to nuclear attack.

During the Reagan administration, FEMA’s focus tilted heavily in favor of civil defense under Louis Giuffrida and, later, General Julius Becton. The Loma Prieta earthquake and Hurricane Hugo shattered complacency about natural hazards in 1989. FEMA’s response to these events was viewed as inept, and it became clear that FEMA’s top management were mostly political appointees, not emergency managers, all of which set the agency up to fail.


In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed his former Arkansas emergency director, James Lee Witt, to direct FEMA. Some have called the 1993–2001 period the “Witt Revolution,” because Witt—the first FEMA director with emergency management experience—streamlined agency practices and knit disparate agency factions into a single agency with a mission oriented toward natural disasters. This management reform paid dividends during FEMA’s generally successful response to the 1993 Midwest floods and to the 1994 Northridge earthquake in southern California. The 1993 flood in particular induced the agency to create the Mitigation Directorate; for the first time, substantial FEMA resources and attention would be paid to taking steps to mitigate the effects of disaster before it struck, rather than relying primarily on relief and recovery to ease the damage and suffering caused by disasters.

FEMA, however, stumbled somewhat in the mid 1990s when it failed to claim the primary federal role for managing national responses to terrorism attacks, a problem that rose on the agenda with the 1993 World Trade Center and 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. FEMA’s role in terrorism was therefore never clear, even before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In 2001, President George W. Bush returned to the prior practice of political appointees to lead FEMA. Under his first FEMA director, Joe Allbaugh, FEMA discontinued a popular disaster mitigation program, Project Impact. To his credit, Allbaugh did recognize that FEMA would have a role in terrorism, and he reconstituted the new Office of National Preparedness (ONP) with a focus on terrorism.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks changed FEMA and national emergency systems, although it is questionable that FEMA needed wholesale change. FEMA was made a part of the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Many of its functions were diffused throughout DHS, and most of its leadership had little or no emergency management experience.

The agency therefore appeared inept when, in September 2005, Hurricane Katrina revealed that FEMA and other participants were unable to effectively implement the new National Response Plan and the National Incident Management System created after September 11. By 2005, confidence in the agency’s competence was severely eroded. President Bush’s replacement of director Michael Brown with R. David Paulison, a fire and rescue specialist, suggests a shift toward emergency management experience. Some experts believe, however, that FEMA should be removed from DHS.

  • Disasters; Floods and Flood Control; Hazards; Hurricanes.

  • Coping with Catastrophe: Building an Emergency Management System to Meet People’s Needs in Natural and Manmade Disasters (National Academy of Public Administration, 1993).
  • George D. Haddow; Jane A. Bullock, Introduction to Emergency Management (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003).
  • Gary A. Kreps, “The Federal Emergency Management System in the United States: Past and Present,” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters (v.8/3, 1990).
  • Patrick Roberts, “FEMA and the Prospects for Reputation-Based Autonomy,” Studies in American Political Development (v.20/1, 2006).
  • Thomas A. Birkland
    State University of New York, Albany
    Copyright © 2007 by SAGE Publications, inc.

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