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7.4.4: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

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    The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had its beginnings in 1950 with the establishment of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, a response to the growing nuclear threat from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. FEMA has two roles within NEHRP:

    1. leading and coordinating NEHRP, a responsibility reassigned to NIST in 2005
    2. implementing mitigation measures. In the early years of its involvement in the program, it was mainly a coordinator rather than a leader, resulting in criticism in congressional hearings before the 1990 and 1994 reauthorization bill.


    By 1994, FEMA’s leadership responsibilities include: 

    1. preparation of NEHRP plans and reports to Congress,
    2. assessment of user needs,
    3. support of earthquake professional organizations,
    4. arranging interagency coordination meetings,
    5. support of problem-focused studies, and
    6. outreach programs, especially for small businesses.

    In its implementation role, FEMA contributes to developing standards in new construction and retrofits, and to applying engineering design knowledge to upgrading building codes. FEMA has provided grants to state governments and to multi-state consortia to support hazard mitigation, including not only earthquakes but floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and other disasters. Activities include education, outreach, adoption of building codes, and training exercises. In the Northwest, these activities are coordinated by the FEMA Region X office in Bothell, Washington; in California, it is done by the Region IX office in Oakland.


    FEMA (and later NIST) played the lead role in preparing the federal government for national emergencies. Public Law 93-288 established a Federal Response Plan to coordinate federal assistance in a large-scale disaster in which the resources of participating federal agencies would be necessary. The Federal Response Plan outlines the responsibilities, chain of command, and sequence of events for federal and local authorities to deal with the emergency.


    When the president declares an area struck by an earthquake to be a major disaster area, FEMA swings into action. A coordinating officer is appointed, who sets up a disaster field office to manage the response and recovery, including rescue and small loans and grants to businesses or individuals. The disaster field office coordinates response from other federal agencies, the state emergency services agency, and the Red Cross. The emergency response team deals with twelve support functions: transportation, communications, public works/engineering, firefighting, information and planning, mass care, resource support, health/medical services, urban search and rescue, hazardous materials, food, and energy.


    In most cases, the governor of a state requests that the president declare a disaster area, unless the disaster affects mainly federal property, as was the case in the Oklahoma City bombing. The disaster declaration varies from one disaster to the next. So far, in the presidential declarations that have been issued in the past few years, this arrangement has worked reasonably well. However, the system has yet to be tested by an earthquake as large as the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake or an M 9 subduction-zone earthquake.


    In 1997, FEMA started Project Impact, a plan to build disaster-resistant communities. The strategy was to build partnerships with local government, private companies, and individuals to prepare a community for a disaster before it happens, rather than simply picking up the pieces afterward. With assistance from FEMA, communities do their own planning rather than accept a plan dictated by Washington. Communities submitted proposals to FEMA for support.


    Seattle was one of the first communities selected, starting with a grant of $1 million in 1998. The hazards selected were primarily earthquakes and landslides. The focus was on retrofitting homes and schools and on hazard mapping, including those parts of the city with steep slopes that might be more vulnerable to landslides. The plan emphasized public education and outreach so that homeowners and school board members could learn what they needed to do; in the case of schools, teams of volunteers helped make classrooms safer against earthquakes. Information about retrofitting was made available to surrounding communities as well as to businesses. Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle, has been very proactive even though it was not a recipient of Project Impact funding.


    Project Impact was given credit for improving Seattle’s response to the Nisqually Earthquake, greatly reducing losses to homes and schools. However, in a twist of fate, the earthquake struck on the same day that Vice President Dick Cheney was announcing on CNN that Project Impact was being terminated! In response, Senator Patty Murray called CNN and stated, “I’m shocked and outraged. I have been on the ground here in the Pacific Northwest for the last three days examining the aftermath of this earthquake, and there is a stark contrast between the damage done to communities that have prepared for natural disasters and those that have not.”


    In fairness, Project Impact was not intended to be a permanent source of funding for any one community. However, as a result of the Nisqually Earthquake, additional funds were provided, although the emphasis shifted to planning as a result of the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000. Funds provided under Project Impact required communities to have a FEMA-approved mitigation plan in place by November 1, 2004. The first jurisdiction in the United States to develop a FEMA-approved plan was Clackamas County, Oregon, part of the Portland metropolitan area and a former recipient of Project Impact funds.


    In 1997, FEMA started an initiative called HAZUS (Hazards United States), under a cooperative agreement with the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS). HAZUS uses a software program (newest version: HAZUS MH 2.2, compatible with Windows 7 and 8) to map building inventories, soil conditions, known faults, and lifelines to estimate economic losses and casualties from a disaster. Technical assistance is available at HAZUS was used for a study of the Portland, Oregon, and Reno-Carson City, Nevada, metropolitan areas. It has expanded nationwide, building from local census tract data. It requires ArcGIS and ArcView. MH stands for Multi-Hazards, including floods, hurricanes, coastal surges, and earthquakes. Its website is


    FEMA’s programs represent a shift in focus from hazard—where the faults are, how big the earthquakes will be on these faults, and how the ground will respond—to risk—what the losses will be on a future earthquake. For example, the 1992 Landers Earthquake (M 7.3) in the Mojave Desert was a big hazard but did not represent a big risk because of the low population in the affected area. On the other hand, the 1987 Whittier Narrows Earthquake (M 5.9) was a much smaller hazard but a larger risk because it struck in the middle of Los Angeles.


    FEMA has estimated that projected average annual earthquake losses in Washington and Oregon would be almost $400 million, the largest amount outside of California and nearly one-tenth of the total for the United States. Washington ranks second in the U.S. with $228 million, and Oregon is third with $167 million, twice as high as the next state, which is New York. Nearly half of Washington’s annual losses are in Seattle, and half of Oregon’s losses are in Portland, reflecting the large building inventory in those cities. On the other hand, the highest per capita annual losses are in the coastal counties of the Northwest, reflecting their proximity to the Cascadia Subduction Zone.


    These losses include capital losses, that is, repair and replacement costs for structural and nonstructural components, including building contents and inventory, and losses of income due to business interruption. The loss estimates take into account the quality of building construction. For example, there are many buildings in Seattle and King County that predate modern building codes that require them to be bolted to their foundation. The projected average annual losses for a region can be compared to the annual increase in construction costs due to higher earthquake standards in building codes; this has led to controversy in the St. Louis-Memphis area.


    In 2003, FEMA released HAZUS-MH to assist HAZUS users in employing the relatively sophisticated loss estimation software. FEMA has established a program administered through the private sector to provide training and technical assistance to new HAZUS users. For information about training courses, go to


    As a response to the war on terrorism, FEMA became part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), adding human-made disasters (terrorist attacks) to natural disasters. This move has not been without its critics. At a Congressional hearing on May 8, 2003, Robert Olson, former executive director of the California Seismic Safety Commission, stated, “How the leadership responsibility will be performed within the new and huge DHS is of some concern to the earthquake community.” Members of Congress also expressed concern that the shift to DHS might result in loss of visibility for NEHRP.


    However, Anthony Lowe, director of the mitigation division of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate of DHS, defended the transfer and asked for a chance to show that it would lead to “an unprecedented opportunity” for the earthquake program, in part “because of the ability of earthquake design to address man-made intrusions.”


    In September 2003, Hurricane Isabel tested the new organization. While the hurricane was still offshore, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, himself a former governor, appeared on TV to explain the government’s plans. The response was efficient, including the use of volunteers, although there were long lines of people awaiting assistance, similar to those after the Northridge Earthquake. One FEMA staff member told me, “It works the same way as before. We just have another boss.” On the other hand, the federal response to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy was criticized as uncoordinated and politicized, and the coordination between the federal government and the states of Louisiana, New York, and New Jersey has not been a model of efficiency.

    This page titled 7.4.4: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Robert S. Yeats (Open Oregon State) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.