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History of Emergency Management

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Origins of U.S. Emergency Management

For more than two centuries, U.S. lawmakers have recognized the need for a federal government that helps its citizens in times of disaster. The most significant and earliest instance of such federal involvement occurred in 1803. That was the year when a series of fires swept through the port city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

In response to the disaster, Congress passed legislation that provided relief for Portsmouth merchants. More importantly, the Congressional Act of 1803 contained the first piece of national disaster legislation ever to be passed by a United States Congress.

In the decades to follow, the imprint left by Portsmouth fostered an ad hoc approach to emergency management that, until the middle of the 20th century, Congress would repeat more than 100 times to deal with such well-known disasters as the great fires of New York City in 1835 and Chicago in 1871, the hurricane that leveled Galveston, Texas in 1900, and the devastating earthquake that struck San Francisco in 1906.

During the 1930s, the federal government incorporated disaster relief as part of its wide-reaching legislation to rebuild the U.S. economy. By the middle of the decade, laws were in place that provided federal funds for the reconstruction of public facilities, highways, and bridges damaged by natural disasters.


During the 1950s, emergency management was dominated by wartime civil defense activities that the government believed would prepare the nation for a possible nuclear attack.

A series of massive hurricanes and earthquakes during the 1960s and early 1970s served to focus public attention on natural disaster relief. The Federal Disaster Assistance Administration led major federal responses to Hurricane Carla (1962), the Alaskan Earthquake (1964), Hurricane Betsy (1965), Hurricane Camille (1969), the San Fernando Earthquake (1971), and Hurricane Agnes (1972). Legislation soon followed, most notably in 1974 when the Disaster Relief Act was enacted, establishing a process for presidential declarations of national disasters.

Despite these changes, emergency and disaster management activities remained fragmented. More than 100 federal agencies were involved in some aspect of these efforts, while state and local governments had many parallel programs and policies. The need to centralize federal emergency functions was made even more acute by the much publicized Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1978.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order to create the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA absorbed a host of disaster-related agencies, including the Federal Insurance Administration, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program, and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration. It also assumed responsibility for civil defense. FEMA was tested during the 1980s and 1990s by natural and man-made disasters, including the contamination of Love Canal in upstate New York, the Cuban refugee crisis in 1980, the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Homeland Security

In 2001, the concept of federal emergency management faced an unprecedented test with the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC. The attacks exposed glaring weaknesses in the government’s coordination of emergency and disaster activities. Subsequently, the U.S. Congress passed the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created the Department of Homeland Security. This newly created agency was designed to better coordinate efforts among the different federal agencies that deal with law enforcement, disaster preparedness and recovery, border protection, and civil defense. In 2003, FEMA was absorbed into Homeland Security and became a part of the department’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate.

Careers in Emergency Management

Emergency management has had a long history in the United States and its importance will only continue to grow. The threat of future terrorist attacks, natural disasters related to global warming, and flu pandemics continue to create a high demand for emergency management specialists who are formally trained in emergency management. The online MPA with a specialization in Emergency Management offered by Anna Maria College prepares students for disaster management jobs at the management or director level.

Anna Maria College’s MPA with a specialization in Emergency Management has a long and distinguished history of its own as one of the oldest and well-established degrees of its kind in the country. Find out why so many of our students choose us to advance their careers in emergency management. Call us at 877-265-3201 to speak to a Program Manager or request more information online.

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