Skip to main content

All Americans Will Pull Together.. .
The Federal Government’s Evolving Role in Dealing with Disaster: Introduction

Guide accompanying exhibit of primary and secondary sources related to twentieth century disasters. Woodruff Library, Third floor New Book Rotunda

Famous 20th Century U.S. Disasters

Galveston Hurricane 1900(Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Division. )


San Francisco Earthquake 1906 (U.S. Geological Survey. Historic Earthquakes. Damage photos)

"Migrant Mother," Dust Bowl 1930s  (Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Division.)


Thalidomide Babies 1960s (Photo Creative Commons)

Love Canal 1970s (Love Canal Collections. University of Buffalo, NYSDOH5)

When Disaster Strikes...



As we contemplate the federal government’s efforts to deal with Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the Gulf Oil spill, as well as other natural and man-made emergencies, this exhibit takes us back in time and examines how the federal government's role in providing relief and recovery services has developed. It pulls together a variety of primary and secondary sources to look at a number of famous disasters including

Galveston Hurricane of 1900

San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

Dust Bowl of the 1930s

Thalidomide drug crisis of the 1960s

Love Canal’s toxic waste in the 1970s

The record shows success as well as failure in the immediate crisis as well as important government efforts to deal with future disasters. These have ranged from the evolution of the Weather Bureau to the establishment of the Superfund to clean up toxic waste.

The Federal Government Gets Involved...



Today Americans take for granted that the federal government will step in to assist with any large scale natural or man-made disaster, but that has not always been the case. The federal role has evolved over time. The first federal effort to deal with disaster was the Congressional Act of 1803. This act provided assistance to a New Hampshire town following 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 natural disasters.

By the 1930s, a federal approach evolved to solve the problems caused by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation was given authority to make disaster loans for repair and reconstruction of certain public facilities following an earthquake, and later, other types of disasters. In 1934, the Bureau of Public Roads was given authority to provide funding for highways and bridges damaged by natural disasters. The Flood Control Act of 1936 gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers greater authority to implement flood control projects.  The Federal Disaster Relief Act of 1950 was an early effort to coordinate federal assistance to support state and local governments in disaster response.

The Cold War also had an impact on disaster preparedness. President Truman created the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) in 1950 to provide disaster assistance to state and local communities. The main mission of the FCDA, however, was to prepare for nuclear and biological disasters caused by an attack from the Soviet Union. The agency created public fallout shelters and trained governments and the public on how to respond to a nuclear catastrophe. This included the famous directive to "duck and cover."

Natural and Man-Made Disasters

A large number of natural disasters in the 1960s and early 1970s showed the need for even more federal involvement. New legislation including the National Flood Insurance Act (1968), which offered new flood protection to homeowners, and  the Disaster Relief Act (1974), which  firmly established the process of Presidential disaster declarations. Despite these new laws, federal response to disaster remained fragmented. At the same time the concept of disaster was expanding beyond natural events such as hurricanes and earthquakes to include man-made problems such as hazardous waste.

Coordinating Relief Efforts

In the 1970s, the National Governor's Association, frustrated by  the many agencies with which state and local governments were forced to work, asked President Jimmy Carter to centralize federal emergency functions. President Carter's responded in 1979 with Executive Order 12127, which centralized many federal emergency functions in a new agency called Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In March 2003, FEMA joined 22 other federal agencies, programs and offices in becoming part of the Department of Homeland Security. The new department’s mission is to bring a coordinated approach to national security challenges arising from emergencies and disasters - both natural and man-made.

Image Slide Show

© Emory University Libraries - 540 Asbury Circle, Atlanta, Georgia 30322