Hurricanes Katrina and Rita:

Coordination between FEMA and the Red Cross Should Be Improved for the 2006 Hurricane Season

GAO-06-712: Published: Jun 8, 2006. Publicly Released: Jun 8, 2006.

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The Red Cross played a key role in providing relief to victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, mounting its largest ever disaster response. Under the National Response Plan, and its emergency support function-6 (ESF-6), the Red Cross and FEMA are tasked with working together to coordinate federal mass care assistance in support of voluntary organizations, as well as state and local governments, as they meet mass care needs--such as shelter, food, and first aid. Questions have been raised about how the Red Cross and FEMA operated following the Gulf Coast hurricanes and what improvements can be made for the 2006 hurricane season. This report includes GAO's interim findings on the Red Cross and FEMA's hurricane operations. GAO will continue to analyze federal and charitable hurricane relief efforts.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross--working together for the first time as co-primary agencies for ESF-6 under the National Response Plan--disagreed about their roles and responsibilities, and this disagreement strained working relationships and hampered their efforts to coordinate relief services for hurricane victims. Specifically, FEMA and the Red Cross disagreed about the role of the ESF-6 coordinator, a FEMA official charged with leading mass care, housing, and human services assistance. FEMA officials told us that the Red Cross should direct all requests for FEMA assistance through the ESF-6 coordinator, while Red Cross officials stated that the organization should be able to take requests directly to the FEMA Operations Section Chief--not the ESF-6 coordinator. As a result, the two organizations spent time negotiating operating procedures, rather than focusing solely on coordinating mass care services in the early days of the hurricane response effort. FEMA and the Red Cross have noted that they are working to clarify their roles and responsibilities under ESF-6, but as of May 24, 2006, had not reached agreement on these responsibilities, including the role of the ESF-6 coordinator. Red Cross staff assigned to perform ESF-6 functions, such as working with FEMA to coordinate federal mass care assistance in support of sheltering and feeding, rotated frequently--often every 2 to 3 weeks--making it difficult for them to maintain strong working relationships and gain expertise. These short rotations hindered communications among staff, thus making it more difficult to mobilize resources. Additionally, government officials stated that these short rotations led to the loss of institutional knowledge about ESF-6 processes, such as how to collect shelter data correctly. Red Cross officials said that 2- to 3- week rotations are standard because most disasters do not require longer rotations, but acknowledged that short rotations were a problem. Red Cross officials also told us they are hiring permanent staff at the state level to help coordinate relief services, including mass care under ESF-6, and are also considering staffing options for national-level positions. However, as of May 24, 2006, the Red Cross has not implemented policies that would address the issue at the national or local level. FEMA did not have a comprehensive system to track requests for assistance it received from the Red Cross on behalf of voluntary organizations and state and local governments for items such as water, food, and cots; the absence of such a system created more work for the Red Cross and slowed the delivery of relief services. These organizations often did not know when, or if, they would be receiving needed supplies and, as a result, scaled back relief services in some instances. The Red Cross was only able to follow up on these requests informally--a process that took time and was often ineffective.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA and the Red Cross executed a new Memorandum of Understanding that sets forth their agreement to cooperate in a variety of areas related to disaster response and recovery. The MOU confirms the organizations' commitment to sharing information about relief operations and coordinating their activities with respect to disaster response and recovery operations, service delivery, training, the issuance of public information, and communications technology.

    Recommendation: To clarify roles and responsibilities within ESF-6 for the 2006 hurricane season, the Secretary of DHS should direct FEMA to work with the Interim President and Chief Executive Officer of the Red Cross as soon as possible to reach agreement on the operating procedures that they will both use in the event of an incident of national significance. Given the lack of progress FEMA and the Red Cross have made thus far in reaching agreement on the operating procedures and that the new hurricane season is beginning, they may wish to use mediation to speed the agreement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: During recent months, the Red Cross has implemented a number of additional strategies to ensure that its ESF-6 personnel have the strongest working relationships and ESF-6 expertise to provide the highest level of service. These strategies include the following: Red Cross has created positions for and is in the process of hiring ten new ESF-6 staff, each of whom will work in one of the 10 FEMA regions on a full time, year round basis. Red Cross has created positions for and is in the process of hiring ESF-6 reservists, specially-trained Red Cross personnel who will be deployed to FEMA locations as needed in the even of a disaster. Because reservists are paid employees, they will be able to remain on ESF-6 assignments for longer periods than volunteers typically can. Red Cross has revised its training course for the ESF-6 function to place greater emphasis on coordination with its partners and provide more comprehensive information about the process for requesting federal resources to support state and local response activities. To date, approximately 170 Red Cross personnel have been trained using the revised training course. Red Cross is in the process of hiring two additional staff to work at Red Cross Headquarters and assist in the management of Red Cross ESF-6 activities. Fourteen new employees have been hired to work in specific states and focus on coordination with state emergency management agencies on mass care issues. These new employees will be knowledgeable about the mass care activities of state and local governments and work closely with Red Cross ESF-6 personnel, who will be deployed to FEMA locations during a disaster, thereby enhancing communications about state and local resource needs that can be addressed through the federal system.

    Recommendation: The Interim President and Chief Executive Officer of the Red Cross should implement ESF-6 staffing strategies that better facilitate the development of working relationships and retain institutional knowledge. For example, such strategies might include lengthening ESF-6 staff rotations in incidents of national significance or primarily using permanent staff to fill ESF-6 positions.

    Agency Affected: American Red Cross

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Although FEMA has taken steps to improve its resource tracking, the agency has not confirmed that the Red Cross was consulted in the development of a new FEMA resource tracking system. We requested an update from FEMA on its actions but have not received any information for FY08, FY09 or FY10.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FEMA's resource tracking system will meet the needs of those requesting FEMA assistance, the Secretary of DHS should direct FEMA to ensure that it obtains input from the Red Cross as it develops a resource tracking system.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response: Federal Emergency Management Agency

 

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