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Responding to Natural Disasters

The Corps' role in responding to natural disasters has evolved since just after the Civil War. Direct federal participation in disaster relief began in 1865 when the federal government helped freed blacks survive flooding along the Mississippi. The Corps' first formal disaster relief mission was during the Mississippi Flood of 1882, when it supported Army Quartermaster Corps' efforts to rescue people and property. Army engineers played a critical role in responding to the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood of 1889 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

In 1917, the Army reorganized its disaster relief responsibilities and assigned command and control during disaster situations to department or Corps area commanders. Following major flooding in 1937, the chief of engineers ordered all engineer districts to develop flood emergency plans.

In 1947, the Corps responded to an explosion of 2,400 tons of ammonium nitrate on board a ship docked in Texas City, Texas. Two years later, it handled its first major snow removal emergency a massive blizzard on the Great Plains. By 1950, the Corps had established a reputation for responding quickly and effectively to disaster relief missions. Under the Federal Disaster Relief Act of 1950 the Corps continued to be the lead federal agency during flood disasters. Five years later, Congress passed Public Law 84 99 which improved the Corps' ability to fight floods. The law authorized an emergency fund of $15 million annually for flood emergency preparation, flood fighting and rescue operations, and repair or restoration of a flood control work.

During the 1960s the Corps responded to two powerful natural disasters: the Alaskan earthquake of 1964 and Hurricane Camille in 1969. The extensive damage caused by these events and Tropical Storm Agnes (1972) prompted Congress in 1974 to broaden federal responsibility for disaster assistance and assigning responsibility to federal agencies.

By the 1980s the Corps' mission had expanded from flood fighting to other hazards. Consequently, the Corps established an emergency management program. In 1988 the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide for all disasters, regardless of cause. The Corps works closely with FEMA in many natural disasters including floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.

Between 1989 and 1992, the Corps responded to the largest and most destructive oil spill in U.S. history in Prince William Sound in Alaska. It also responded to Hurricane Hugo, which caused major damage in the Virgin Islands and coast of the Carolinas, and to the Loma Prieta Earthquake in California. The 1990s brought even costlier natural disasters. Between 1992 and 1995 the Corps performed major repair and rehabilitation work in the wake of Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki, record flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and the Northridge earthquake in California.

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