Whether it's hurricanes along the coast, snowstorms in the north, or tornadoes in the interior, natural and man-made emergencies affect all of us throughout the year. And the first name in federal response? FEMA: the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But who are they? And what exactly are they tasked with doing?

FEMA was originally created by President Carter in the wake of the Three Mile Island crisis. Then, in 2003, President Bush folded FEMA into the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

So how does FEMA work?

Well, every disaster response effort starts at the local level. Say you're the emergency manager of a small county in Nevada, with an office of six or seven employees. One afternoon, you get a call: on the outskirts of your jurisdiction, a dam has broken. There's massive flooding and you need helicopters ASAP to evacuate stranded people. But you don't have helicopters... you barely have enough vehicles.

So you call Nevada state's emergency management agency. Their job is to find and lend you helicopters from other counties, or even from the National Guard, or state police. And if that doesn't work, they might call over to Arizona to borrow some for you.

Now - let's say that that dam is the Hoover Dam - meaning, the body of water that's just been unleashed is the largest of its kind in the United States. You need a LOT of helicopters, and so does every single emergency manager like you in the state - and you're all screaming for helicopters because it is, after all, an emergency.

And it's not just helicopters - no, that's just the tip of the iceberg. There are requests coming in for every other resource that's needed - cars, ambulances, tents, bedding, water, water trucks, lights, first responders from every discipline, distribution centers, medical units, triage tents, shelter facilities for the elderly, shelter facilities for the young, shelter facilities for the pets.

It's bad everywhere, so bad that no local or state government can deal with the mess. That's where our friend FEMA comes in -- to field the myriad requests for various logistics assets.

A helicopter? Well, it turns out FEMA knows a few people over at the Pentagon. various commodities needed. Boats? FEMA calls the Coast Guard. How about measuring that water quality? FEMA calls the EPA. Need some radios? Turns out, FEMA knows people at the FCC.

You see, FEMA is much less like an army than it is a Wal-Mart of the federal government.