What, exactly, do FEMA and GEMA do when disaster strikes?

If you're not sure what each emergency response department is responsible for, you're not alone

Who does what during a disaster
Which agency is responsible for which actions?

Illustration by Mike McQuade

What’s the history of federal emergency management?
Until April 1, 1979, states hit by tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods often had to wait on Congress to pass ad hoc legislation or the president to pass an executive order to fund relief efforts. (The first was in 1803 after a fire extensively damaged a New Hampshire town.) Then, they had to work with dozens of federal agencies to shuttle supplies, fix roads, and repair the electric grid. After a series of high-profile disasters like Hurricane Camille, the second most-powerful recorded hurricane to hit the U.S., then President Jimmy Carter created the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a one-stop shop that would provide vital supplies, low-interest loans, and experts to states after disasters—and, after 9/11, terrorist attacks.

Can FEMA swoop in whenever it wants?
Only if a disaster—and the definition is relatively broad—occurs on federal property. Otherwise, a governor must request FEMA’s help. FEMA assesses the situation and makes a recommendation to the president. The president can declare an emergency and kickstart the process that provides financial aid, expertise, and relief supplies from its national network of warehouses, including one south of Atlanta that serves the surrounding region.

If we have FEMA, why do we also need a state emergency management agency?
There’s a common talking point in emergency management: The best emergency response is federally funded, state managed, and locally executed. Created in 1981, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency helps communities prepare for and respond to local disasters, like the April tornadoes that killed eight people. In Georgia, either the governor or mayors can declare emergencies.

GEMA has spent more than $110 million on orders of personal protective equipment to fight COVID-19.

How did the state-of-emergency process work for the COVID-19 pandemic?
On March 13, President Donald Trump declared a public-health emergency. The following day Governor Brian Kemp did the same and, by doing so, put GEMA in charge of the state’s response. The status gave Kemp the power to quarantine individuals (which he partially did on April 2, issuing a shelter-in-place directive), waive regulations such as limits on medication refills or out-of-state healthcare workers coming to Georgia, suspend restrictions on trucking to keep supply chains flowing, commandeer the National Guard to aid hospitals and testing facilities, and charge GEMA with acquiring and distributing medical supplies such as tests, ventilators, and personal protective equipment, both from national stockpiles and other sources such as companies and colleges. By late April, for example, GEMA had distributed more than 2.2 million N95 masks, 3.6 million surgical masks, 129 ventilators, and 24,635 test kits during the pandemic. At the same time, although testing officially had been opened to anyone with symptoms and the state had nearly doubled its number of tests per capita in two weeks, Georgia still ranked 37th among states for completed tests per 1,000 people.

This article appears in our June 2020 issue.