Ever since a New Hampshire town burned down in 1803, the federal government has helped communities struck by disaster to get back on their feet again.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, for example, prompted bills to reimburse soldiers for the clothing lost in the fire, remove taxes on “certain spirits” and help reconstruct public buildings.
The hurricane that leveled Galveston, Texas, in 1900 and the 1906 earthquake that reduced most of San Francisco to rubble led to a series of tax measures as well, according to congressional records provided by the Senate library research staff.
“Legislation is one of the byproducts of major disasters,” according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) history of federal government response to disasters.
But Congress hasn’t played a central role in helping disaster victims to recover or local economies to rebuild, as it now plans to do for communities leveled by Hurricane Katrina, until relatively recently.
Most of the help that poured into Chicago after the fire, for example, came from cities, towns, schoolchildren, private organizations and labor unions. These groups raised $5 million for the devastated city.
Congress began to reevaluate its role in disaster relief in 1950 when it passed the first law that set up a designated federal disaster fund.
The act followed an expansion of federal programs in the 1930s, as the government tried to help Americans recover from the Great Depression. The Reconstruction Finance Corp. issued loans to repair public facilities, and the Agriculture Department helped farmers with crops damaged by drought or floods.
;“Full-scale entrance into disaster relief also was influenced by the growing scale of governmental activity and the concomitant rise in the value and importance of public facilities,” the CRS report states.
The 1950 act included the stipulation that state and local governments, as well as private groups, would be primarily responsible for recovery. But, the CRS report adds: “Once the original federal commitment had been made, it could not be contained within the limited scope of the disaster program and pressures for expansion developed.”
Those pressures, which included lingering complaints from local communities about federal response programs, led to the creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1979.
Since then, federal responsibility for the costs of disasters has increased exponentially, particularly in the past 15 years. Supplemental appropriations to the disaster-relief fund now routinely exceed $2 billion a year — often by quite a bit.
Before 1989, the supplemental appropriation to the disaster-relief fund rarely if ever exceeded the billion-dollar barrier. (The CRS report covered only appropriations made from 1974 to 2005, and in that time no supplemental disaster bill exceeded $1 billion.)
When Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, for instance, Congress approved more than $870 million, in 2002 dollars, to help communities recover, the highest supplemental appropriation to the disaster fund from 1974 to 1988. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo struck the Carolina coast and Congress provided $1.1 billion in supplemental appropriations.
On several occasions since then — for floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and, in 2001, for terrorist attacks — Congress has added billions of dollars to the relief fund.
In 1992, $4.1 billion was added to deal with everything from flooding in Chicago to riots in Los Angeles.
Flooding was the main problem in 1993, principally along a rapidly rising Mississippi River, prompting Congress to add $2 billion to the fund.
In 1994, the Northridge earthquake hit Los Angeles. Congress passed a supplemental of $4.7 billion that year.