FEMA: The Most Powerful Civilian Agency?

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FEMA: The Most Powerful Civilian Agency? The Government's Central Coordinator During National Emergencies June 15, 2000

By Hans H. Chen

NEW YORK (APBnews.com) -- When the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant suffered a near-meltdown of its radioactive uranium core 21 years ago, it taught the nation an invaluable lesson about disaster -- it pays to be prepared for the worst.

Thousands of area residents fled the area while thousands more shut their windows and wondered if the spring air that seeped in was slowly killing them. Simultaneously, local authorities who lacked the plans for an evacuation were faced with the possibility of having to clear out large populations quickly.

The chaotic response to the nuclear accident involved more than 100 agencies and demonstrated the need for a more organized approach to catastrophe planning and management. The federal government had already been studying this problem, and in the wake of Three Mile Island, President Jimmy Carter took action on it. He created what many now consider to be the federal government's most powerful civilian agency: FEMA.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is best known for its mobilizations in the wake of tornadoes, floods and hurricanes, but its mandate also includes emergency preparedness and response to nuclear power plant accidents, terrorist attacks, industrial environmental disasters and acts of war.

When such catastrophes threaten local communities or national security, FEMA can marshal the resources of 28 federal agencies, including every other cabinet agency, the U.S. Postal Service, NASA and the Nuclear Regulatory Agency. FEMA also retains nearly 7,000 reserve workers who can inspect damaged buildings, perform engineering surveys or work phone banks during emergencies.

"If the president declares a disaster or emergency, FEMA goes to the state and says, 'We're here. We're here to help. What do you need?'" said Marc Wolfson, a FEMA spokesman. "And then FEMA goes about tapping the various federal agencies and departments that have the resources to bring that stuff in."

President's cabinet

FEMA, whose director sits in the president's cabinet, is also responsible for ensuring the nation's survival after a war, military attack or terrorist strike and oversees the execution of emergency plans drafted by each federal agency.

Executive Order 12919, signed in June 1994 by President Clinton, details how the agency is empowered to provide "central coordination" of the federal government's operational response during time of any emergency deemed to threaten the country's "domestic industrial and technological base."

Citing national security, FEMA refuses to discuss these emergency plans, but they generally call for federal agencies to draft emergency chains of command and to identify and protect crucial resources. But FEMA disputes assertions by some conspiracy theorists that it could take over the country with a stroke of the president's pen.

"We don't run governments," Wolfson said. "We coordinate resources that can be made available to existing state and local governments when they request assistance. If there's martial law declared, the director of FEMA is not going to run the country for the president."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 16, 2000


IMHO, FEMA did a wonderful job here in North Carolina last year when hurricane Floyd hit. I was very impressed with the way they helped us to prepare by providing excellent communication for the public before and after the storm.

-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), June 16, 2000.

Under Martial Law FEMA has the power to run the
government under the president.

-- spider (spider0@usa.net), June 16, 2000.

Spider, when FLOYD happened, seemed to be, no body knew Jack. We went from from one coast to another. All hotels filled. No Church, I reinteriate, NOT ONE CHURCH, opened their doors to our dilema. All we needed was floor space, a running bathroom, and running water. As long as I shall live, I shall hope that I never forget , that all Church Doors were closed, to those who seeked sanction. A local Lions Club or some club simular to the fact opened their doors to us, offered bed space and quilts on an open floor space. They offered water and coffee, and the bathroom. What Kind Kindred Folks, while the churches, set idly by, with their doors, darkened and locked.I say "Shame" on your Churches, for having no kindness for humankind.

-- Fool (My Story@here.com), June 18, 2000.


Sorry to hear of your plight. Churches would
be a natural haven for victims of natural
disasters. I would visit the pastors of those
churches and demand an explanation. Failing
that, I would take the issue up with the local

-- spider (spider0@usa.net), June 18, 2000.

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