Transportation-Disadvantaged Populations:

Actions Needed to Clarify Responsibilities and Increase Preparedness for Evacuations

GAO-07-44: Published: Dec 22, 2006. Publicly Released: Dec 22, 2006.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Katherine A. Siggerud
(202) 512-6570
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

During the evacuation of New Orleans in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many of those who did not own a vehicle and could not evacuate were among the over 1,300 people who died. This raised questions about how well state and local governments, primarily responsible for disaster planning, integrate transportation-disadvantaged populations into such planning. GAO assessed the challenges and barriers state and local officials face; how prepared these governments are and steps they are taking to address challenges and barriers; and federal efforts to provide evacuation assistance. GAO reviewed evacuation plans; Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Transportation (DOT), and other studies; and interviewed officials in five major city and four state governments.

State and local governments face evacuation challenges in identifying and locating transportation-disadvantaged populations, determining their needs, and providing for their transportation. These populations are diverse and constantly changing, and information on their location is often not readily available. In addition, these populations' evacuation needs vary widely; some require basic transportation while others need accessible equipment, such as buses with chair lifts. Legal and social barriers impede addressing these evacuation challenges. For example, transportation providers may be unwilling to provide evacuation assistance because of liability concerns. State and local governments are generally not well prepared--in terms of planning, training, and conducting exercises--to evacuate transportation-disadvantaged populations, but some have begun to address challenges and barriers. For example, DHS reported in June 2006 that only about 10 percent of state and about 12 percent of urban area emergency plans it reviewed adequately addressed evacuating these populations. Furthermore, in one of five major cities GAO visited, officials believed that few residents would require evacuation assistance despite the U.S. Census reporting 16.5 percent of car-less households in that major city. DHS also found that most states and urban areas significantly underestimated the advance planning and coordination required to effectively address the needs of persons with disabilities. Steps being taken by some such governments include collaboration with social service and transportation providers and transportation planning organizations--some of which are DOT grantees and stakeholders--to determine transportation needs and develop agreements for emergency use of drivers and vehicles. The federal government provides evacuation assistance to state and local governments, but gaps in this assistance have hindered many of these governments' ability to sufficiently prepare for evacuations. This includes the lack of any specific requirement to plan, train, and conduct exercises for the evacuation of transportation-disadvantaged populations as well as gaps in the usefulness of DHS's guidance. Although federal law requires that state and local governments with mass evacuation plans incorporate special needs populations into their plans, this requirement does not necessarily ensure the incorporation of all transportation-disadvantaged populations. Additionally, while DHS has made improvements to an online portal for sharing related information, this information remains difficult to access because of poor search and organizational functions. Moreover, although the federal government can provide evacuation assistance when state and local governments are overwhelmed, the federal government is not prepared to do so. Amendments to the Stafford Act in October 2006 affirmed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) (an agency within DHS) is responsible for leading and coordinating evacuation assistance. DHS has not yet clarified, in the National Response Plan, the lead, coordinating, or supporting agencies in such cases.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Actions have been taken that essentially meet the intent of this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve federal, state, and local preparedness for the evacuation of transportation-disadvantaged populations, the Secretary of Homeland Security should improve technical assistance by (1) working with DOT to provide more detailed guidance and technical assistance on how to plan, train, and conduct exercises for evacuating transportation-disadvantaged populations; and (2) continuing to improve the organization of and search functions for its Lessons Learned Information Sharing online portal to better facilitate access to information on evacuations of transportation-disadvantaged for federal, state, and local officials.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Grant guideline revisions in 2007 and 2008 did not contain these requirements and DHS has no plans to include such requirements in the future.

    Recommendation: To improve federal, state, and local preparedness for the evacuation of transportation-disadvantaged populations, the Secretary of Homeland Security should require that, as part of its grant programs, all state and local governments plan, train, and conduct exercises for the evacuation of transportation-disadvantaged populations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2006 we reported that while the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Transportation (DOT) had taken action to improve the federal government's ability to provide evacuation assistance when state and local governments are overwhelmed by a catastrophic disaster, gaps remained. Specifically, we found that because DHS had not clarified in its National Response Plan the lead, coordinating, and supporting federal agencies to provide evacuation support, it could not ensure that it was taking the necessary steps to prepare for evacuating transportation-disadvantaged populations, and that in a future catastrophic disaster, this could contribute to leaving behind of some of society's most vulnerable populations. We recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security clarify, in revisions to the National Response Plan, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), an agency within DHS, is the lead agency to provide evacuation assistance when state and local governments are overwhelmed, and also clarify the responsibilities of supporting federal agencies. In 2010, we learned that DHS published the National Response Plan Framework and the accompanying Mass Evacuation Incident Annex. The Annex identified federal agencies involved in a federally supported mass evacuation and defined their roles and responsibilities for planning, preparing for, and conducting evacuations. It articulated FEMA's responsibilities as lead agency as well as the supporting roles of DOT and other agencies. Our work helped bring about important steps needed for the federal government to better plan and execute evacuation of transportation-disadvantaged populations during future catastrophic disasters.

    Recommendation: To improve federal, state, and local preparedness for the evacuation of transportation-disadvantaged populations, the Secretary of Homeland Security should clarify, in the National Response Plan, that FEMA is the lead and coordinating agency to provide evacuation assistance when state and local governments are overwhelmed, and also clarify the supporting federal agencies and their responsibilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Action taken essentially meets the intent of this recommendation

    Recommendation: In addition, to encourage state and local information sharing as part of their evacuation preparedness for transportation-disadvantaged populations, the Secretary of Transportation should encourage DOT's grant recipients and stakeholders, through guidance and outreach, to share information that would assist emergency management and transportation officials in identifying and locating as well as determining the evacuation needs of and providing transportation for transportation-disadvantaged populations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Dec 12, 2014

Dec 10, 2014

Nov 18, 2014

Oct 9, 2014

Sep 26, 2014

Sep 25, 2014

Sep 23, 2014

Sep 12, 2014

Looking for more? Browse all our products here