After Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Hoover, his New Deal unleashed massive federal spending for public works, farm aid, and much else. Not surprisingly, then, Roosevelt also presided over the first coordinated federal disaster relief. In 1935, he sent thousands of unemployed World War I veterans to Florida to help clean up after a hurricane; more than 200 of them died while doing so.
But direct assistance to affected individuals came much more slowly. In 1950, Congress passed a measure allowing presidents to authorize disaster-related spending on pubic facilities. Yet individuals couldn’t apply for federal aid until the 1969 Disaster Relief Act, passed in the wake of hurricane Camille, which offered temporary housing, unemployment compensation, and small business loans to victims of the tragedy.
Alas, Camille’s most impoverished victims rarely received such aid. Applicants for housing trailers had to show they owned a property lot, while loan seekers needed to put up collateral. Meanwhile, complicated paperwork rules made it nearly impossible for African-Americans – the poorest and least-educated hurricane victims – to receive aid. Of 617 small-business loans issued after Camille in Mississippi, which had the highest percentage of black citizens of any state, just 21 went to non-whites.
Similar reports led President Jimmy Carter to press for the creation of FEMA, which Congress established in 1979. But under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the agency became “a dumping ground for political hacks,” as a House committee reported in 1993. To direct it, Bush had appointed a close friend of his chief of staff with no direct experience in emergency relief.