The entrance to a disaster assistance distribution point in Waveland, Mississippi, two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. (September 10, 2005)
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The Secret History of FEMA

The federal agency in charge of hurricane Harvey cleanup has a weird Cold War legacy.
FEMA didn’t start off as FEMA—in fact, it has been reshuffled and reorganized more than perhaps any other key agency in recent US history. Harry Truman started FEMA’s forerunner, the Federal Civil Defense Administration, in 1950. One newspaper columnist at the time had a succinct summation of the new agency’s shortcomings: “The Federal Civil Defense Administration has had no authority to do anything specific, or to make anyone else do it.” Unfortunately it’s a criticism that would continue to ring true, straight through natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

Bureaucratic indifference has marked nearly every aspect of the nation’s homeland security operations, a point best indicated by the FCDA’s evolution: Over the following decades, it migrated regularly between different departments and underwent nearly a dozen name changes and agency affiliations before eventually becoming the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the 1970s. After the 9/11 attacks there was yet another organizational reshuffling, and the agency finally ended up part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

Most of these various predecessors to FEMA weren’t all that concerned with civilian natural disasters. They were primarily focused on responding to nuclear war; the evolution to being the first call after a hurricane, flood, or tornado came about in part because it turned out America doesn’t have all that many nuclear wars—and the equipment and supply stockpiles and disaster-response experts at FEMA’s predecessors were useful for something other than the apocalypse.

FEMA was the result of Jimmy Carter’s efforts to restore some primacy to civil defense planning, bringing it back into the spotlight after years of diminishing budgets. The administration threw its weight behind a congressional effort to reestablish what was then known as the Office of Emergency Preparedness under a new name, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, uniting the nation’s disaster response with its planning for “continuity of government,” the secret programs that were supposed to snap into place in the event of nuclear war.
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