Requests for Federal Disaster Assistance Need Better Evaluation

CED-82-4: Published: Dec 7, 1981. Publicly Released: Dec 7, 1981.

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The Federal Disaster Relief Program is intended to supplement the assistance which states, their political subdivision, private relief organizations, and citizens provide for disaster relief. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) evaluates requests from states for assistance and recommends declarations or denials to the President. GAO reviewed FEMA activities to determine the type and amount of information it obtains, the criteria it uses to evaluate the requests, and the bases for its recommendations.

GAO found problems which existed in determining the reasonableness of disaster assistance provided by state and local governments. FEMA uses a wide range of information in arriving at its decisions. The lack of consistency in the quality and method of assessments and the lack of knowledge by others as to the FEMA methods of evaluation can create doubt as to whether the federal government is only providing supplementary assistance and whether each request is judged in a fair and equitable manner. FEMA policies, procedures, and guidelines for evaluating requests are not widely known. Disclosing internal assessment processes would help state and local governments decide whether they had a valid request to make, enable them to provide more complete and uniform information, and minimize doubts as to whether their requests are treated in a fair and equitable manner. GAO also found that FEMA has adopted a controversial cost-sharing policy and has funded other than natural disasters. Although the FEMA cost sharing policy is consistent with the Disaster Relief Act, it has created controversy among the states. State officials contend that the policy forces them to pay for disaster relief costs which the states believe are beyond their capability to assume or which constitute more than a reasonable amount of state and local funds. The President has provided disaster assistance for such events as the Love Canal chemical contamination and the Cuban refugee crisis which raised questions as to whether other than natural catastrophes are within the purview of the existing law.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No further action is intended by the responsible committees on the proposed amendments to the Disaster Relief Act.

    Matter: Congress should clarify the Disaster Relief Act by spelling out as clearly as possible the type of incidents which may receive disaster assistance. It could define more precisely the intended coverage of the act and specify that disaster assistance should be provided if there are no other federal programs available and the state is unable to cope with the situation. FEMA and the Administration would then be better able to administer the act as Congress intends.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No further action is intended by the responsible committees on the proposed amendments to the Disaster Relief Act.

    Matter: Congress should reevaluate the present law and clarify the extent to which supplemental federal assistance should be given in major disasters and emergencies.

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: For political reasons, Congress has not given this direction and FEMA believes that it should not address these inequities at this time.

    Matter: Congress should direct FEMA to prepare a comprehensive analysis of the impact of potential state inequities on federal disaster assistance and submit to Congress a detailed plan and legislative changes to correct such weaknesses.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of FEMA should make it clear that future requests which fully comply with federal laws and regulations will help avoid delays in processing the requests.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of FEMA should establish written policies, procedures, and guidelines to use when evaluating major disaster and emergency requests and publish them in the Federal Register. This should include: (1) an explanation of the FEMA basic philosophy for evaluating capability and commitment; (2) an explanation of the use of evaluation factors, such as debt and borrowing capacity, surplus funds, and prior disaster history; and (3) the FEMA positions on budgetary relief, forced commitments, and similar matters. The Director should also require that governors' requests include comprehensive information on the financial capability of the state, the availability of such resources under state law, per capita income, disaster trends, and similar factors to expedite the FEMA assessment of the level of capability each state could attain and to aid FEMA in evaluating the reasonableness of state commitments.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of FEMA should reevaluate and improve the FEMA assessment criteria for evaluating major disaster and emergency requests.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FEMA has determined that it will not use computer analysis for making decisions on disasters.

    Recommendation: The Director of FEMA should use computer models, such as those developed by GAO, as a tool for program decisionmaking and evaluation.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of FEMA should develop comprehensive, uniform forms to be used by governors when submitting their requests and by regional offices when performing damage assessments.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of FEMA should require the documentation of all substantive discussions and evaluation meetings held by FEMA.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

 

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