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History of Emergency Management

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History of Emergency Management

National University

1 February 2017


Emergency Management in today society plays a very important role as it deals with saving lives and protecting our nation when acts of terrorism, industrial sabotage, fire, natural disasters (such as earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.), public disorder, industrial accidents, and communication failures. This research paper will discuss the history of events ranging from 1635 to the establishment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


The earliest recorded disasters took place before the Declaration of Independence. In 1635 the Great Colonial Hurricane swept across much of Southern New England Bays were flooded killing Native Americans, trees were uprooted, and areas were left uninhabitable. Governor William Bradford said of the storm at the time: …such a mighty storm of wind and rain as none living in these parts, either English or Indian ever saw. ...It blew down sundry houses and uncovered others. ...It blew down many hundreds-of-thousands of trees turning up the stronger by the roots and breaking the higher pine trees off in the middle (PBS, 2007). In other words, the scenes are all too familiar from televised reports of national disasters are not new, they are simply more widely broadcasted. In 1881, the Missouri River flooded. In 1886 Charleston, South Carolina was hit by a deadly earthquake. In 1889, Seattle experienced a devastating city-wide fire (Miskel, 2006). In 1893, six hurricanes hit the United States causing a total of 4,000 deaths. In 1900, a hurricane hit Galveston, Texas leaving between 6,000 and 8,000 of Galveston’s 38,000 residents dead with an additional 10,000 residents left homeless (PBS, 2007). This remains the deadliest weather disaster ever to hit the United States. While economic and technological considerations encouraged people to settle along the Mississippi River and in other vulnerable locations increasing the scope, variety, and frequency of disasters, the havoc imposed by Mother Nature is not altogether new. While modern disaster planning must include preparations for terrorist threats which pose new and previously unimaginable concerns, the overall response system needed to handle all disasters is similar.

Throughout the 19th century and the early 20th century, disaster response was handled by the federal government on a case-by-case basis without any clearly defined system, the clear majority of incidents were handled by state and local authorities independent of federal involvement. When federal disaster management was necessary, the military was the primary coordinator and source of manpower (Miskel, 2006). In 1917, during World War I, the federal government took its first step towards formalizing federal disaster relief. The War Department issued Special Regulation Number 67 formally titled “Regulations Governing Flood Relief Work in the War Department” (Platt, 2006). However, despite the military order, federal disaster relief remained informal and sporadic until the 1950s. Citizens did not expect the federal government to contribute to relief efforts, and most people thought of disaster relief as a responsibility for neighbors, faith-based organizations, and other charitable organizations. In 1950, the onset of the Cold War prompted federal officials to absorb disaster response into federal civil defense. This was accomplished by passing the Federal Relief Act of 1950, which was designed specifically to lessen the economic impact of disasters. The legislative history of the bill read: The purpose of the bill is to provide for an orderly and continuing method of rendering assistance to the state and local governments in alleviating suffering and damage resulting from a major peacetime disaster and in restoring public facilities and in supplementing whatever aid the state or local governments can render themselves (Platt, 2006). In many ways, the bill was a logical expansion of the New Deal social policies. It was intended to provide federal money to relieve the economic stresses of a disaster but it was not intended to supplant current disaster relief services offered by state, local, and non-governmental organizations.

Nonetheless, the 1950 law was the first in a series of bills and natural disasters that transitioned the federal government from its negligible pre-1950 disaster relief involvement to the current system. The original 1950 law was to be limited in scope, activated only upon a presidential disaster declaration, and designed only to supplement state and local efforts (Platt, 2006). However, once the federal government committed itself to an official capacity within the disaster relief system, the federal government became the subject of intense criticism every time disaster relief was less than ideal. While initially disaster relief was the of the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA), because of the Cold War, in 1953 it was transitioned into the Department of Defense where it was juggled between agencies for over 25 years (Platt, 2006). The Department of Defense was considered the appropriate department for the disaster response system because of the fear that an attack from the Soviet Union could create the next major disaster. However, due to limited resources, money and effort was expended on deterrence rather than disaster readiness. The ongoing assumption was that a successful attack from the Soviet Union would be so catastrophic that even the most prepared civil defense system would be grossly inadequate (Miskel, 2006). Thus, the system was never carefully developed and was left unprepared to handle any disasters of unusually large magnitude – catastrophic disasters. Routine disasters were easily handled by the states with financial support, and limited logistical support, from the federal government. By the late 1970’s several sectors of the federal government were involved in disaster relief. However, since disaster relief was not the primary responsibility of any one agency it is unclear from the available literature exactly who had authority over the program.

According, to former Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College James F. Miskel, the General Services Administration (which builds/leases federal buildings), the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Defense all were involved in the program to various extents (Platt, 2006). According, to Rutherford H. Platt, control of the program shifted from the Housing



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