What Is FEMA?

FEMA Explained in Less Than 5 Minutes

Two people embrace next to destroyed home after storm
•••

Malven / Getty Images

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is a government agency that coordinates the federal response to disasters, such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks. It helps the United States before, during, and after emergencies. 

Here’s a closer look at how the agency helps people prepare for emergencies and begin the recovery process afterward. 

Definition of FEMA

FEMA is a federal agency that was established by President Carter by executive order in 1979 with the mission to help people “before, during, and after disasters.” The agency accomplishes this through direct assistance, grant funds, risk management, and other programs for businesses, communities, and individuals.

Before FEMA, over 100 different federal departments and agencies assisted with fires, earthquakes, and other disasters. Trying to coordinate relief efforts with that many agencies was cumbersome, so people called for a more streamlined process.

President Carter did just that by consolidating all of those agencies into one. Upon its formation, FEMA became responsible for disaster preparedness.

FEMA accomplishes its mission by: 

  • Developing a national culture of preparedness
  • Establishing emergency food and shelter programs
  • Conducting studies on building science to create disaster-resilient communities and building codes
  • Managing the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)
  • Conducting preliminary damage assessments following a disaster
  • Supporting individuals and communities with funds as they recover from disasters 

The FEMA Flood Map can give you a better sense of your home’s flood risk. If you live in a high-risk area, many lenders require you to have flood insurance. However, since over 20% of all flood claims are for properties outside these areas, you may want flood insurance even if you’re outside the high-risk zone.

How Does FEMA Work? 

Adhering to its primary mission, FEMA’s 2018 to 2022 strategic plan takes a three-pronged approach: 

  • “Build a Culture of Preparedness”: Promoting the idea that everyone should be prepared. To do so, people need to understand local and community-specific risks and foster partnerships to act quickly and decisively in the face of a disaster.
  • “Ready the Nation for Catastrophic Disasters”: Building a national incident workforce of emergency professionals and first responders to execute operations during disaster response and recovery. 
  • “Reduce the Complexity of FEMA”: Streamlining the processes for employees, survivors, and those seeking grants to make funds easier to access when they’re most needed.

These goals are designed to help people in all stages of an emergency. FEMA works with emergency response teams at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels to accomplish these goals. 

Before an Emergency 

Before a disaster occurs, FEMA provides education to help individuals, families, and communities prepare for emergencies. Additionally, FEMA’s National Preparedness Goal calls for the nation to be prepared to handle all sorts of emergencies, from natural disasters and pandemics to terrorist attacks. 

Being prepared for an emergency is something you can do on an individual level. You can prepare for the worst by following the steps recommended by Ready.gov, a partner of FEMA.

During an Emergency 

When a disaster strikes, it’s up to the governor of the affected state to ask the president to declare a state of emergency. Once the president issues the declaration, FEMA can begin assisting. 

If it appears that a presidential disaster declaration is necessary, FEMA regional offices can help local representatives provide a preliminary damage assessment (PDA). This assessment looks at the impact of the disaster on individuals and the types of federal assistance that could help.

After an Emergency

Once the disaster has passed, FEMA works with state and local agencies to help restore the affected area. The Individuals and Households Program (IHP) is the main program to provide aid to households that suffered damage or displacement following a disaster. 

There are two main parts of the IHP: FEMA Sheltering and Housing Assistance and Other Needs Assistance (ONA). Sheltering and Housing Assistance helps homeowners repair or replace their homes if they are uninsured or underinsured. It can also help with rent if you’re displaced by a disaster. 

FEMA’s ONA program provides for serious needs caused by the disaster. This can include expenses for childcare, medical and dental care, burial, repairing an essential vehicle, and other necessary costs. 

Typically, only comprehensive car insurance protects if your vehicle gets damaged in a flood or a different type of disaster. Consider reviewing your insurance policy and adding this type of coverage well before a disaster strikes.

Who Owns FEMA?

FEMA is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The administrator reports to the DHS secretary. When activated during an emergency, FEMA leadership also has a direct line to the president of the United States. 

FEMA headquarters and several program offices are located in Washington, D.C. It also owns ten regional offices, warehouses, and staging areas throughout the United States that help provide local support in a disaster. 

How Do You Apply for FEMA Assistance? 

If you’ve been impacted by a declared disaster and are uninsured or underinsured, you may be eligible for federal assistance through FEMA. You can review the available programs and apply online at DisasterAssistance.gov

The amount of funding and types of programs available vary from disaster to disaster. Your needs are taken into account when FEMA determines how much money you’re eligible for. 

FEMA is not an insurance replacement, and it will not provide as much assistance as insurance would. This means you should prepare for an emergency before it happens by purchasing the appropriate types and amounts of insurance on your home, plus comprehensive car insurance.

Key Takeaways

  • FEMA assists individuals and communities before, during, and after emergencies via a wide range of programs and services, including financial assistance.
  • FEMA aims to instill a culture of preparedness in order to better manage and recover from catastrophic disasters.
  • FEMA manages the National Flood Insurance Program.
  • The president must officially declare an emergency before FEMA can begin providing assistance. 
  • Individuals affected by a disaster can apply for FEMA assistance. However, this is not a replacement for insurance.