Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA): How It Works, What It Provides

What Is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the federal agency whose mission is to prepare for, respond to, and help residents recover from the impact of both natural and man-made disasters, incidents, and terrorist events in the United States and its territories.

FEMA has established nine guiding principles designed to direct how the agency interacts with the public, approaches its work, and provides services to the community. These principles—Accessibility, Accountability, Empowerment, Engagement, Flexibility, Getting Results, Preparation, Stewardship, and Teamwork—are further guided by FEMA’s strategic plan, most recently updated for 2022–2026.

Key Takeaways

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the government agency tasked with preparing for, responding to, and recovering from natural and man-made disasters in the United States and its territories.
  • FEMA’s nine guiding principles—in combination with its current strategic plan—form the basis for FEMA actions and mission direction.
  • The disaster declaration process, codified by the Stafford Act, spells out FEMA’s role in coordinating the federal response to a presidentially declared disaster.
  • Disaster assistance is available from FEMA to individuals, businesses, communities, and states following a presidential disaster declaration.
  • A special type of tax-deductible disaster loss is available to individuals and businesses in federally declared disaster areas.

How the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Works

FEMA exists to manage disasters in three ways:

  • Raising awareness of the risk of a disaster, providing risk reduction education, and initiating preventive action before a disaster happens
  • Alerting the public and coordinating the federal response during a disaster
  • Coordinating federal recovery efforts, including providing resources and attempting to prevent future disasters after an incident or event

The disaster declaration process, for which FEMA is best known, begins with a request from a state or territorial governor following an event. This process is required by legislation known as the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988. Under the Stafford Act law, FEMA coordinates the response to any presidentially declared disaster.

The governor’s request is made through the regional FEMA office. State and federal officials conduct a preliminary damage assessment (PDA) to estimate the impact of the disaster on individuals and public facilities. This information is used to show that an appropriate response to this disaster is beyond the capabilities of the state and local governments.

As part of the request, the governor must direct the execution of the state’s emergency plan, including information about the amount of local and state resources that can be committed to alleviating the impact of the disaster. Based on the governor’s request, the president may declare that a major disaster exists. This, in turn, opens up a number of federal programs to assist in the response and recovery effort.

Available Assistance

Not all federal programs are available for every FEMA disaster. That determination is made during the PDA and based on additional information uncovered following the disaster. Assistance falls into three categories:

A special type of tax-deductible loss, known as a disaster loss, is available to anyone who resides in an area that has been designated as a federal disaster area. This can include disasters that arise from floods, fires, and earthquakes.

Individual Assistance

The Individuals and Households Program (IHP) is a combined FEMA and state-run program. When a major disaster occurs, this program provides money and services to people in the declared area whose property has been damaged or destroyed and whose losses are not covered by insurance.

The IHP ensures that people whose homes have been damaged by disaster have a safe place to live. Another program, Other Needs Assistance (ONA), provides financial assistance to individuals and households with other disaster-related expenses that do not qualify for a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA).

These programs are available only to homeowners and renters who are U.S. citizens, noncitizen nationals, or qualified aliens affected by the disaster.

Public Assistance

Public Assistance, which targets public entities, funds the repair, restoration, reconstruction, or replacement of a public facility damaged or destroyed by a disaster. Eligible entities include state and local governments and other political entities, such as Native American tribes and Alaska Native Villages.

Certain private nonprofit (PNP) organizations may also receive assistance, including educational, utility, irrigation, emergency, medical, rehabilitation, and temporary or permanent custodial care facilities. PNPs that provide “critical services” (power, water, wastewater treatment, communications, and emergency medical care) may apply directly to FEMA for a disaster grant. All other PNPs must first apply to the SBA for a disaster loan. If the SBA loan application is declined, the applicant may reapply for FEMA assistance.

Hazard Mitigation Assistance

Hazard Mitigation refers to measures taken to eliminate or reduce long-term risks to people and property from natural hazards and their effects. These mitigation measures reduce personal loss, save lives, and reduce the cost of recovering from current and future disasters. Hazard mitigation funds can come from either Section 404 or 406 of the Stafford Act. In both cases, the federal government will provide up to 75% of the cost of the mitigation, subject to certain restrictions.

The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), authorized by Section 404 of the Stafford Act, lets communities apply for mitigation funds through their state. The state, as grantee, is responsible for notifying potential applicants of the availability of funding, defining a project selection process, ranking and prioritizing projects, and forwarding projects to FEMA for funding. The applicant carries out approved projects with the state or local government providing a 25% match.

History of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Formed in 1979 by a presidential executive order issued by then-President Jimmy Carter, FEMA combined several federal programs designed to address emergency management into a single agency. The agency’s mission has grown over the years to include a role as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The agency’s authorities were further defined and expanded by an additional series of legislative actions.

In 1988, the Stafford Act amended and renamed the Disaster Relief Act of 1974. This action established the framework for disaster response and recovery through presidentially declared disasters.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush signed the Homeland Security Act, which made FEMA a part of the Department of Homeland Security. Over the next 20 years, Congress passed additional legislation that further shaped FEMA. The legislation included the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (2006), in response to FEMA's inadequate and widely criticized response to that hurricane and the report of Congress's Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, Later on came the Sandy Reform Act (2012), and the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (2018).

How does an individual apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster assistance?

There are several ways to apply for disaster assistance following a federally declared disaster:

  • You can apply online at DisasterAssistance.gov.
  • You can use the FEMA mobile app.
  • You can call FEMA at 1-800-621-3362—24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • You can visit a temporary FEMA disaster recovery center, which has opened in a disaster area following a disaster event and presidential declaration.

You will need to have certain information available, including:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Insurance information
  • A description of damage you have suffered
  • Financial information, including annual income
  • Contact information including name, phone number, and address where the damage occurred
  • Direct deposit information, if that is how you wish to receive any disaster relief

What constitutes a disaster eligible for FEMA assistance?

A disaster is a disruption to the function of an area that exceeds the area’s ability to cope using its own resources. To be eligible for FEMA assistance, the disaster must be presidentially declared. For this to happen, the governor of the affected state or territory must request a disaster declaration from the president of the United States and the president must then declare the area a disaster.

How do I take a disaster loss tax deduction?

You may deduct your loss due to a federally declared disaster in the year when the loss occurs or the previous year, whichever is more beneficial to you, depending on the type of disaster. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Publication 547: Casualties, Disasters, and Thefts provides guidance and information about what forms to use and how to fill them out.

Typically, natural disasters—such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and earthquakes—are the events that qualify someone to take a disaster loss tax deduction. You can deduct losses related to your home, household items, and automobiles to the extent that they are not covered by insurance.

The Bottom Line

For an agency that only came into existence in 1979, FEMA has become a major part of the disaster response landscape in America. In partnership with other agencies, including the SBA, the agency has helped reduce disaster risk while simultaneously responding to those already in progress.

FEMA’s three-pronged directive to raise awareness before a disaster, respond appropriately during one, and provide preventative measures after an event are part of the reason why FEMA has played a major role in helping mitigate the impact of natural disasters in the U.S.

Article Sources
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  2. Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Publication 1: We Are FEMA: Helping People Before, During, and After Disasters,” Page 48.

  3. Federal Emergency Management Agency. “A Guide to the Disaster Declaration Process and Federal Disaster Assistance,” Page 1.

  4. Internal Revenue Service. “Publication 547 (2021), Casualties, Disasters, and Thefts.”

  5. Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Publication 1: We Are FEMA: Helping People Before, During, and After Disasters,” Page 6.

  6. Federal Emergency Management Agency. “A Guide to the Disaster Declaration Process and Federal Disaster Assistance,” Page 2.

  7. Federal Emergency Management Agency. “A Guide to the Disaster Declaration Process and Federal Disaster Assistance,” Page 4.

  8. Federal Emergency Management Agency. “A Guide to the Disaster Declaration Process and Federal Disaster Assistance,” Pages 4–5.

  9. Federal Emergency Management Agency. “About FEMA.”

  10. govinfo.gov. "A Failure of Initiative." Pages 151-158.

  11. Federal Emergency Management Agency. “How Do I Apply for FEMA Assistance?

  12. DisasterAssistance.gov. “Application Checklist.”

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