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Historical Trends In Emergency Management

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Historical Trends in Emergency Management

Early History – 1800-1950

In 1803, a Congressional Act was passed to provide financial assistance to a New Hampshire town devastated by fire. This is the first example of Federal government involvement in a local disaster.

During the 1930’s the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Bureau of Public Roads were both given authority to make disaster loans available for repair and reconstruction of certain public facilities after disasters. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created during this time to produce hydroelectric power and, as a secondary purpose, to reduce flooding in the region.

During this period, a significant piece of emergency management legislation was passed by Congress. The Flood Control Act of 1934 gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers increased authority to design and build flood control projects.

The Cold War and the Rise of Civil Defense – 1950s

The next notable era in the evolution of emergency management took place during the 1950’s. The Cold War years presented as the principal disaster risk the potential for nuclear war and its subsequent radioactive fallout. Civil Defense programs proliferated across communities during this time.

Almost every American community maintained a civil defense director, and most States had an official who represented civil defense in the State government hierarchy. By profession, these individuals were primarily retired military personnel, and their operations received little political or financial support from their State or local governments.

Federal support for these civil defense activities was vested in the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), an organization with minimal staff and financial resources, and whose main role was to provide technical assistance. However, the State and local civil defense directors became the first recognized face of emergency management in the U.S.

A companion office to the FCDA, the Office of Defense Mobilization, was established under the Department of Defense (DOD). The primary functions of this Office were to allow for quick mobilization of assets and materials and the production and stockpiling of critical materials in the event of a war. FCDA operations included a function called emergency preparedness. In 1958, these two offices were merged into the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.

The 1950’s decade was a quiet period in regards to large-scale natural disasters, though three major hurricanes did strike with considerable impact. Hurricane Hazel, a Category 4 hurricane, inflicted significant damage in Virginia and North Carolina in 1954, Hurricane Diane hit several Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states in 1955, and Hurricane Audrey, the most damaging of the three storms, struck Louisiana and North Texas in 1957. Congressional response to these disasters followed a familiar pattern of ad hoc legislation to provide increased disaster assistance funds to the impacted areas.

As the 1960’s began, three major natural disaster events occurred. In 1960 in a sparsely populated area of Montana, the Hebgen Lake Earthquake (measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale) brought attention to the fact that the Nation’s seismic risk extended far beyond the California borders. Also in that same year, Hurricane Donna struck the West coast of Florida, followed by Hurricane Carla which blew into Texas in 1961. The incoming Kennedy Administration decided to change the Federal approach to disasters and emergency management. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy created the Office of Emergency Preparedness inside the White House to handle the growing risk of natural disasters. Civil Defense responsibilities, however, remained in the Office of Civil Defense within DOD.

Changes to Emergency Management – 1960s

As the 1960’s progressed, the United States was affected by a series of major natural disasters. The Ash Wednesday Storm in 1962 devastated over 620 miles of shoreline on the East Coast, producing over $300 million in damages. Then, in 1964, an destructive earthquake in Alaska’s Prince William Sound that measured 9.2 on the Richter scale generated tsunamis that affected beaches as far down the Pacific Coast as California and killed 123 people – the event garnered front-page newspaper headlines throughout America and the world. Hurricane Betsy (1965) and Hurricane Camille (1969) were both significant in regards to their force and fury, killing and injuring hundreds of people and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage along the Gulf Coast.

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