Early Agencies

The nineteenth century also saw the advent of “physical science” agencies, which focused on studying the atmosphere and better understanding and using natural resources. The U.S. Coast Survey was established in 1807, the U.S. Weather Bureau in 1870, and the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries in 1871. It was the U.S. Weather Bureau that developed the measurement and observation tools used to track changes in the weather, including severe events such as hurricanes and blizzards.

In the 1930s, the federal government began to take a more formal role in disaster relief. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation was the first step; it made disaster loans for the reconstruction of public facilities damaged by earthquakes. The Bureau of Public Roads received the authority to provide money to repair highways and bridges damaged by natural disasters. Other laws such as the Flood Control Act authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to create flood control projects.

Despite these advances, disaster relief was still a fairly disjointed activity, with some federal help, some help from state governments, and some help from organizations such as the American Red Cross. During the 1960s the United States was hit with several severe hurricanes including Carla in 1962, Betsy in 1965, and Camille in 1969. More legislation was passed, such as the National Flood Insurance Act in 1968 (which provided additional protection to homeowners hit by floods) and the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 (which formalized the President’s power to declare national emergencies. Even with these efforts to streamline procedures, however, there were still major obstacles. During the 1970s the government began implementing programs to deal with possible disasters involving hazardous waste and nuclear plants. By the end of the 1970s there were more than 100 federal agencies handling various aspects of disaster relief. These included the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the Federal Insurance Administration, the Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration, and the U.S. Defense department’s Civil Preparedness Agency. In addition, each state and many municipalities had individual disaster relief programs.


Inside Early Agencies