The Evolution of Federal Emergency Response Since Hurricane Andrew


Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a paper the author submitted for an Emergency and Disaster Management course at American Public University.

Over the past two decades, the United States has had to respond to and recover from numerous disasters, both man-made and natural. After each disaster, studies were conducted to determine if the findings (lessons learned) could be used to improve response and recovery for the next disaster. Each follow-up consisted of case studies, lessons learned, after-action reports, and improvement plans. Sometimes, the federal government stepped in and enacted legislation to provide better organization for future events.

My objective was to assess how well the additional disaster-based legislation has worked over time. My approach was to compare the federal response to Hurricane Andrew in southern Florida in 1992 with federal responses to subsequent disasters whose response plans had incorporated federal legislation updates since 1992.


Hurricane Andrew struck Dade County, Florida, in the early morning hours of August 24, 1992. The storm’s core pounded the Florida peninsula for nearly four hours with winds of about 145 up to 200 miles per hour (mph). The exact numbers are not known, since instruments at many weather stations in South Florida failed when the storm came ashore.1 That Andrew was the only major hurricane to form in the 1992 season and was the “first major hurricane South Florida had seen in decades” may have been a factor in the lack of adequate preparation by residents of South Florida for this major storm. (1) Most people, including local and state officials, were not prepared for a storm of this magnitude.

In fact, according to prestorm advisories by the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami, Florida, Andrew was “barely a tropical storm” that was “expected to blow apart.”2> Expectations, in fact, were relatively low until just before Andrew came ashore and an NHC Advisory issued on Sunday, August 23, referred to Andrew as a Category 4 hurricane.3 Using Sea, Lake and Overland Surge from Hurricanes (SLOSH), provided by the National Weather Service, emergency management officials called for an evacuation on Sunday, less than 24 hours before the forceful winds arrived.4

In addition to the winds, Andrew brought a 14-foot storm surge, heavy rains, and spinoff tornadoes. Forty-three people died as a result of the storm, which destroyed 126,000 homes, left 180,000 people homeless, destroyed 80 percent of the area’s farms, and caused approximately $30 billion in damage.5

The recovery efforts of the local, state, and federal governments following the storm prolonged the suffering of Andrew’s victims. Local officials were not prepared for the devastation that lay before them when the sun came up following the landfall of Hurricane Andrew. On Monday, just hours after Hurricane Andrew had passed, Homestead’s city manager complained that “county officials didn’t really understand the extent of the devastation and weren’t responding fast enough.”6 The federal response was so slow, in fact, that Kathleen “Kate” Hale, the emergency management coordinator for Dade County, called a press conference and, with tears in her eyes, asked, “Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one? They keep saying we’re going to get supplies. For God’s sake, where are they?”7

The confusion and delay spread up the chain of command. The then-governor of Florida, Lawton Chiles, three days after the hurricane had passed, believed that help was on the way after he talked to the President in the first hours after the storm. He did not realize that he first had to submit a written request to obtain the assistance.8

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was the final weak link in the then-existing confusing chain of command. FEMA’s head, Wallace E. Stickney, had no apparent experience in emergency management or disaster response.9 In response to the criticism by victims, officials, and the media of the delayed FEMA response, the Department of Defense (DoD) became involved in the effort to bring the victims of Hurricane Andrew housing, food, and water. Eventually, FEMA activated an emergency operations center, notified 26 federal agencies and the American Red Cross to get ready, and “immersed itself in a 27-page Federal Response Plan (FRP) larded with appendixes.”(7)

Hale’s plea for support during her press conference on the third day after the storm had brought in many donations. However, they overwhelmed local emergency management capabilities; the donations had to be managed. The unsolicited donations necessitated significant military support in receiving, storing, transporting, and distributing the goods. Emergency management and voluntary agencies’ failure to plan for managing donations “led to the first serious effort to address what had become known as ‘the second disaster.’ “10


There has been a long-standing history of legislation that defines the federal role in disaster response.

1803. The first resolution to provide aid to multiple individuals was passed in 1803 following damage resulting from a major fire in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Although no money was distributed, Congress instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to “temporararily suspend the collection of bonds due to the United States by merchants of Portsmouth” to help merchants recover from their losses.11

1974. The next noteworthy change in disaster legislation occurred with the passage of the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, the direct result of the 1974 Super Tornado Outbreak when 148 tornadoes occurred in a single day. For the first time, a process was created for “coordinating state and federal relief operations and tied federal assistance to a Presidential disaster declaration.” (11)

1988. The Disaster Act of 1974 was amended in 1988 to become the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.12

“The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (the Stafford Act) is the principal legislation governing the federal response to disasters within the United States. The act spells out—among other things—how disasters are declared; types of assistance to be provided; and cost-sharing arrangements between federal, state, and local governments. The act also establishes two incident levels—emergencies and major disasters.” (12)

The legislation in place during Hurricane Andrew did not provide for a proactive government response. Federal aid could not begin until a Presidential Disaster Declaration requested by the governor of the state in which the disaster occurred was in place.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, the United States General Accounting Office (GAO), in 1993, sent to Congress the report “Disaster Management: Improving the Nation’s Response to Catastrophic Disasters,” which said that the federal strategy for responding to catastrophic disasters was deficient. It did not include provisions for the federal government to immediately assess in a comprehensive manner the damage and the corresponding needs of disaster victims and also to provide food, shelter, and other essential services when disaster victims’ needs were greater than the resources of the state, local, and private voluntary community. The GAO also cited the lack of provisions for the adequate preparedness of the 26 federal agencies involved in federal disaster response when there is advance warning of a disaster. Preparatory activities, the GAO noted, “are not explicity authorized until the President has issued a disaster declaration.”13

In 2004, the State of Florida experienced the landfall of four separate hurricanes: Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne. In the time since Hurricane Andrew, sufficient changes had been made to the legislation governing federal response so that improvements were immediately noticed in the aftermath of those hurricanes, as was noted in “2004 Hurricane Losses: Testing the Lessons Learned from Hurricane Andrew,” in Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters Journal:

Both the federal and state governments responded quickly to the needs of the residents affected by the recent hurricanes, and in some cases, even proactively. FEMA placed personnel and supplies in nearby areas before the first hurricane hit land so that the resources could be immediately available to those who needed them. This included water and ice, medical assistance, and the availability of emergency housing.14

Had this type of proactive engagement been possible in the days preceding Hurricane Andrew, it is possible that the federal response would not have had to rely so heavily on the DoD to pick up the slack in the Dade County disaster response.

Another example of the improved switch to a proactive response was seen in the days prior to Hurricane Ike, which made landfall in Galveston, Texas, on September 13, 2008. A full five days prior to hurricane landfall, on September 8, 2008, Governor Rick Perry issued a Disaster Declaration for 88 counties in Texas, at the same time officially requesting a Presidential Disaster Declaration, which puts the official federal response into motion on that same day.15 Because of this preemptive action, President Bush was able to formally issue a Presidential Disaster Declaration on the same day the storm made landfall. (15)


Following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, President George W. Bush, on February 28, 2003, issued Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 (HSPD 5), which in essence states that the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security will develop and administer a system that includes guidelines not only for a federal response but also for coordinating the federal response with state and local emergency responders.16 The final National Incident Management System (NIMS) document was released in March 1, 2004, and included a set of mandated objectives for federal, state, and local emergency responders and dates for reaching those objectives. “Several key requirements related to funding and support of planning, preparedness, mitigation, and response activities directly impacting local and state response agencies.” (16) The core of the NIMS is a standardized framework of response that is scalable and flexible, depending on the incident and the number of agencies in the response effort.

A key component of the NIMS is the Incident Command System (ICS)—”a system for managing domestic incidents based on an expandable flexible structure and that uses common terminology, positions, and incident facilities.” (16) Although the ICS has been used by various agencies, most notably fire agencies, for a number of years, the implementation of NIMS was the first time such a structure was required for all state and local emergency responders.

Because the final NIMS documentation was not released until more than a decade after Hurricane Andrew, it can be assumed that the State of Florida as a whole was not using a coordinated incident command response effort. An article written immediately following Hurricane Andrew would seem to support this assumption. An article in the St. Petersburg Times on Saturday, August 29, 1992, less than one week after Hurricane Andrew had devastated South Florida, contained these statements:

  • “But almost from the beginning, there were signs this system wasn’t working well and certainly not quickly.”
  • “There was confusion over who was supposed to be in charge.” (6)

Had the NIMS been in place prior to the landfall of Hurricane Andrew, the confusion would have been minimized. NIMS and ICS chart out those in charge during the event. Even when multiple agencies such as FEMA and other federal agencies respond in accordance with a Presidential Disaster Declaration, the ICS provides a place for them to fall into the chain of command.

National Response Framework

During Hurricane Andrew, the federal government response plan was outlined in the FRP, which was adopted in 1992 and was four months old when Hurricane Andrew destroyed portions of South Florida. Immediately following Hurricane Andrew, Thomas W. Lippman, a reporter for The Washington Post, wrote:

There is, in fact, an organized government master plan detailing the federal response to natural disasters such as hurricanes and manmade catastrophes like urban riots. To a great extent, the government appears to be following it. The question that will apparently need to be answered in the hurricane post-mortems is not whether there was a plan but whether that plan was realistic. A massive ‘Federal Response Plan’ for disasters was completed in April and is being tested in Florida and Louisiana for the first time. It was prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in response to ferocious criticism of its performance after Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina in 1989.17

The FRP of 1992 explained the detailed response of 27 federal agencies, as well as the American Red Cross, to a large-scale disaster. “It outlines ‘pre-assigned missions for federal agencies to expedite the provision of response assistance to support state and local efforts to save lives, alleviate suffering and protect property’—but only in ‘state-identified response requirements,’ not on the federal government’s initiative.”18

This one requirement of the new FRP could have been key to the delay in relief efforts being deployed to Florida after Hurricane Andrew. In the days following the storm, relief supplies seemed to be caught up in a regulation loophole and, as explained above, the delay was caused in part by the governor’s delay in submitting a written request for assistance, as stipulated in the FRP. Governor Chiles said he was not aware that the request had to be in writing. Along with describing the FRP as “cumbersome,” some experts indicated they would “prefer a plan that allows agencies to position personnel and equipment in advance of an expected disaster.” (18)

National Response Plan

In 1999, James Lee Witt, the new FEMA director appointed by President Clinton, made some changes in the FRP based on lessons learned. However, the most significant change in the plan up until that time came in December 2004, when the FRP was superceded by the National Response Plan (NRP).

The NRP was born out of HSPD 5, just as the NIMS, with the goal to “align federal coordination structures, capabilities, and resources into a unified, all-discipline, and all-hazards approach to domestic incident management.”19 The NRP was designed in accordance with the NIMS to “ensure that a consistent doctrinal framework exists for the management of incidents at all jurisdictional levels, regardless of the incident cause, size, or complexity.” (19)

Just as the response to Hurricane Andrew relied on a national plan in its infancy, the newly designed NRP was put to the test with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, eight months after its release. Although 13 years separated Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, criticism about the speed, or lack thereof, of the federal response was fairly similar. It appeared as if no real improvements had been made.

In response to the critiques following Hurricane Katrina, FEMA once again experienced a change in leadership and was faced with revising a better organized, but still cumbersome, NRP. The product of this effort was released in January 2008 as the National Response Framework (NRF). According to the government Web site for the NRF, improvements include “clearer terminology, clarified roles and responsibilities, and major annex changes.” 20

Had the NRF been in place during Hurricane Andrew, it can be assumed that the response effort would have been better managed. The response driven by the NRF, with its more streamlined structure and clearer terminology and role definitions, surely would have been better than the confusion created by the cumbersome FRP. At the very least, Governor Chiles would have been able to understand the process better and would have made the request for assets sooner.

Eventually, the DoD had to respond to take up the slack created by the confusion during Hurricane Andrew. After this disaster, the Stafford Act was amended several times to include improvements based on lessons learned. Indeed, if the Stafford Act in effect today were in place in 1992, there would not have been any delay in the arrival of resources. Changes in the current version of the Stafford Act provide for a proactive or preemptive response by FEMA to prestage resources for a more efficient response immediately following a disaster where advance knowledge of that disaster is available.

The NIMS with the ICS provides for a more organized and structured, although flexible, management of the incident from the preparatory stages through response and recovery if necessary. In the wake of Hurricane Andrew, many articles pointed to the fact that there was no clarity as to who was in charge. The NIMS/ICS takes the guesswork out of supervision in an emergency response. The system, with its inherent structure that allows for interoperability and multiagency response, clearly provides all responders with an organization chart delineating the incident commander or members of a Unified Command.

The NRF now in existence streamlines the entire response process from the local to the federal level, including private partnership information, without being clumsy to implement. Had the NRF been in place at the time of Hurricane Andrew, some of the confusion with responding nonprofit agencies and donation-management issues would have been avoided.


1. Santana, S. (2002). “Remembering Hurricane Andrew.” Weatherwise , 14-19.

2. Peacock, W., Morrow, B. & Gladwin, H. (2000). Hurricane Andrew: Ethnicity, gender, and the sociology of disasters. College Station: Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, Texas A&M University.

3. Mayfield, M. (1992). Hurricane Andrew Advisory 30. Retrieved on October 12 from National Hurricane Center Web site: /atlantic/atl1992/andrew/public/pal0492.030.

4. Post, Buckley, Shuh and Jernigan, Inc. (1993). Hurricane Andrew Assessment Florida; Review of Hurricane Evacuation Studies Utilization and Infromation Dissemination. Washington, DC: Author.

5. Sainz, A. (2002). “Ten Years After Hurricane Andrew, Effects are Still Felt.” Sun Sentinel. Retrieved on October 11, 2010, from the Sun Sentinel Web site:,0,913282.story?page=.1.

6. Lavin, C., Adair, B., Ballingrud, D., Vick, K., Rogers, D., Marbin, C., & et al. (1992, August 29). “Florida disaster plan wasn’t ready for what hit it.” St. Petersburg Times, p. 1A.

7. Mathews, T., & Katel, P. (1992). What went wrong? Newsweek ,120(10), 22. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

8. Olinger, D. (1992, September 20). Chiles in the eye of the storm. St. Petersburg Times, p. 1D.

9. Franklin, D. (1995). The FEMA phoenix. Washington Monthly, 27(7/8), 38. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

10. IS-288; The Role of Voluntary Agencies in Emergency Management.(2010). Retrieved October 15, 2010. from the Emergency Management Institute Web site:

11. Moss, M., Schellhamer, C., & Berman, D.A. (2009) The Stafford Act and priorities for reform. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management: Vol. 6: Iss. 1, Article 13.

12. Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Public Law 93-288) as amended. (2010). Retrieved October 18, 2010, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency Web site:

13. U.S. General Accounting Office. Disaster Management: Improving the Nation’s Response to Catastrophic Disasters, GAO/RCED-93-186. Washington, DC: General Accounting Office, 1995. (accessed October 15, 2010).

14. Cole, C., Corbett, R. McCullough, K. (2005). 2004 Hurricane losses: Testing the lessons learned from Hurricane Andrew. CPCU eJournal, 58(3), 1-9. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

15. Rick Perry News Releases. (2008, September). Retrieved October 15, 2010, from Rick Perry:

16. FEMA Disaster Information. (2008, September). Retrieved October 15, 2010, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency Web site.

17. Lippman, T. W. (1992, September 3). Hurricane may have exposed flaws in new disaster relief plan. The Washington Post, p. A21.

18. Walsh, C.M. (2005). National Incident Management System: Principles and Practice. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

19. Haddow, G.D. & Bullock, J.A. (2006). Introduction to emergency management (2nd ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

20. FEMA National Response Framework. (2008) Retrieved October 21, 2010, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency Web site:

TRACY HUGHES is the emergency planning coordinator for Galveston County, Texas. Serving as the Planning Section chief in the Galveston County Emergency Operations Center when Hurricane Ike came ashore on the Galveston coast, she experienced first-hand the devastation of a major hurricane. She attended American Public University, where she received her B.A. degree with honors in emergency and disaster management in 2010. She was awarded the Basic Military Emergency Management Specialist Award in 2011.

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