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The secret history of FEMA

Consider: The two men who are supposed to be helping run the federal government’s disaster response agency had a pretty quiet late August. Even as a once-in-a-thousand-year storm barreled into Houston, these two veterans of disaster response—Daniel A. Craig and Daniel J. Kaniewski—found themselves sitting on their hands.

Both had been nominated as deputy administrators in July, but Congress went on its long August recess without taking action on either selection—despite the fact that both are eminently qualified for the jobs.
Leaving the roles open as the annual Atlantic hurricane season arrived was the clearest recent sign that FEMA—an agency whose success or failure translates directly into human suffering avoided or exacerbated—barely registers in Washington.

In fact, FEMA has always been an odd beast inside the government—an agency that has existed far from the spotlight except for the occasional high-stakes appearance during moments of critical need. It can disappear from the headlines for years in between a large hurricane or series of tornadoes.
But FEMA’s under-the-radar nature was originally a feature, not a bug. During the past seven decades, the agency has evolved from a top-secret series of bunkers designed to protect US officials in case of a nuclear attack to a sprawling bureaucratic agency tasked with mobilizing help in the midst of disaster.

The transition has not been smooth, to say the least. And to this day, the agency’s weird history can be glimpsed in its strange mix of responsibilities, limitations, and quirks. And then there’s this fun fact: Along the way, FEMA’s forefathers created a legacy that is too often forgotten. Inside those bunkers during the 1970s, the nation’s emergency managers invented the first online chat program—the forerunner to Slack, Facebook Messenger, and AIM, which have together transformed modern life.

 

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