Helping people before, during and after natural disasters

When severe hurricanes, floods or tornadoes strike in U.S. states and territories, people turn to an array of services to help them.

Coordinating that assistance in many cases: the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Rescue workers helping injured man into vehicle (© Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)
Members of the Urban Search and Rescue Florida Task Force 2, under a request from FEMA, evacuate a man September 30, a few days after Hurricane Ian struck Fort Myers Beach, Florida. (© Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)

FEMA is the central point of contact within the U.S. federal government for a wide range of emergency response activities. The agency also works with state and local officials and private and nonprofit groups to get help to those who need it. This includes efforts to:

  • Conduct rescue missions.
  • Organize delivery of food and other supplies.
  • Locate temporary housing for people whose residences were damaged.

In certain circumstances, FEMA can provide individuals with financial assistance to help rebuild their homes, replace damaged vehicles and cover some medical expenses.

Deanne Criswell hugging woman next to vehicle (FEMA/Jocelyn Augustnio)
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell hugs a Hurricane Ian survivor October 2. (FEMA/Jocelyn Augustnio)

President Jimmy Carter created FEMA in 1979 to coordinate relief efforts for local communities that are affected by severe weather events.

Today the agency employs 20,000 people and expands to 50,000 during emergencies and natural disasters.

Frequent severe weather incidents require that disaster relief be available to communities at any time. Planning and prevention are crucial.

Among other things, FEMA provides tips to help people prepare for emergencies, including floods, thunder and lightning, extreme heat and power outages.

“We all know that the best disasters are the ones we prevent from occurring,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said in May.

“We must build sustainable, long-lasting resilience so our communities and our nations are able to withstand disasters and are ready to respond and recover from whatever the future holds,” said Criswell, who headed emergency management agencies in New York City and Colorado before her appointment to FEMA in April 2021. She is the first female administrator to lead the agency.

FEMA hosted more than 500 representatives and officials from 63 countries in 2019 to discuss best practices in emergency management.

“Helping people means getting the right resources to the right people at the right time. And we can’t do this alone,” Criswell said.

Sign language interpreter helping three people communicate next to building being rebuilt (FEMA)
FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams visited Puerto Rico in September 2022 to help Hurricane Fiona survivors apply for disaster assistance. Teams often include interpreters, including this sign language interpreter. (FEMA)