The Congressional Act of 1803 is considered the first piece of disaster legislation. It provided one New Hampshire town with assistance after an extensive fire. In the century that followed ad hoc legislation was passed more than 100 times in response to hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and other disasters.
Disaster recovery efforts were initially a collaborative effort between voluntary organizations and the United States military following disasters such as hurricanes (Galveston 1900), earthquakes (San Francisco 1906), floods (Mississippi 1927) and the droughts of 1930-1931. Before this, relief efforts were funded on an incident-by-incident basis by Congress, with the belief that disaster relief was best left to the efforts of charitable organizations.
In the 1930s, when the federal approach to problems became popular, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation became the authority for distributing loans for repair and reconstruction of certain public facilities following an earthquake. Other legislation included the authority for the Bureau of Public Roads to provide supplemental funding for highways and bridges (1934) and the establishment of federal responsibility for flood mitigation along major rivers (Flood Control Act 1936). Aimed at replacing the piecemeal approach to disaster assistance, the Federal Disaster Relief Programwas passed by Congress in 1950. This program created executive authority to federally declare disasters — and the federal government’s role was shifted to provide supplementary assistance to state and local efforts. Later, in the 1960s under the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration was established to provide federal recovery and response to disasters. The programwas tested with the Anchorage Earthquake in 1964, ushering in an era of resolute federal involvement in disaster relief.
In the 1960s and 1970s a string of major disasters including Hurricane Carla (1962), Hurricane Betsy (1965), Hurricane Camille (1969), Hurricane Agnes (1972) and the Southern California Earthquake (1971) created awareness of the increasing need for legislation to establish clearer roles in disaster response. To this end, under the Disaster Relief Act of 1969, a Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) was established to represent the president during relief efforts, while authorizing individuals and families to receive assistance through local and state governments.
In 1979, by executive order, President Carter merged many of the autonomous disaster-related responsibilities into a new Federal Emergency Management...