Disaster Assistance:

Better Planning Needed for Housing Victims of Catastrophic Disasters

GAO-07-88: Published: Feb 28, 2007. Publicly Released: Feb 28, 2007.

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In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed thousands of homes and displaced over 1 million people. In light of widespread Congressional and public interest in U.S. agencies' performance in assisting hurricane victims, GAO initiated work under the Comptroller General's authority to examine federal housing assistance. Specifically, this report examines (1) the extent to which the National Response Plan (NRP) clearly described the responsibilities and capabilities of federal agencies and the Red Cross; (2) the extent to which these organizations had plans for providing sheltering and housing assistance; and (3) the perceptions of victims and others regarding the assistance needed and provided. GAO reviewed the NRP and related documents, interviewed Red Cross and federal agency officials and a limited number of storm victims, and convened a group of experts to discuss these issues.

In general, the NRP, including its annex covering sheltering and temporary housing (emergency support function no. 6 or ESF-6) clearly described the overall responsibilities of the two primary agencies--the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). However, the responsibilities described for the support agencies--the Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Defense, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Treasury, and Veterans Affairs (VA)--did not, and still do not, fully reflect their capabilities. For example, USDA provided temporary housing for victims, and Treasury acted to make available vacant rental units subsidized through a tax program, but the ESF-6 annex did not reflect these capabilities. Further, the support agencies had not, and have not yet, developed fact sheets laying out their roles and responsibilities, notification and activation procedures, and agency specific authorities, as called for by ESF-6 operating procedures. FEMA's ability to effectively coordinate federal housing assistance was limited because the agency was not aware of the support agencies' full capabilities. The Red Cross and federal agencies generally lacked plans for providing shelter and temporary housing in response to catastrophic disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita but have since taken some steps to improve their response capabilities. Some ESF-6 support agencies had not developed operational plans for meeting their ESF-6 responsibilities, and while they were ultimately able to contribute much-needed assistance, it was not as timely as it might have been. For example, HUD and VA worked out agreements with FEMA after the storms to provide vacant properties, but it took several months before some were available to victims. HUD, USDA, and VA have formed an informal working group to work out procedural details for providing housing assistance, in order to avoid the need to do so after a disaster event. However, this group is not intended to address the full range of these agencies' responsibilities under ESF-6, and does not have a specific timetable for its activities. The specific needs of victims and their perceptions of the assistance that was provided varied, depending in part on circumstances such as where they were located after the disaster, whether they were homeowners or renters, and whether they had special needs. Most victims were eligible for some form of federal temporary housing assistance--such as rental assistance or a travel trailer--and those we contacted had mixed perceptions of the assistance they received. Our interviews with victims, as well as our expert group, indicate that temporary housing needs include not just shelter, but also access to medical facilities, public transportation, schools, employment opportunities, and other social services--and, particularly for those displaced to distant locations, information about all of these things. Legislation enacted in October 2006 requires a strategy that is to address a number of these ancillary needs for victims of future catastrophic disasters, and FEMA has initiated this effort.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FEMA, as the designated primary agency for housing and as the overall coordinator for ESF-6, can effectively coordinate federal assistance in providing temporary housing for victims of future disasters, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should propose revisions as needed to ensure that the NRP fully reflects their respective agencies' capabilities for providing temporary housing assistance under ESF-6.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed revisions to the National Response Framework (formerly known as the National Response Plan) to reflect the USDA's full capabilities to provide temporary housing assistance under the framework's Emergency Support Function No.6 (ESF-6). In January 2008, the Department of Homeland Security released an updated version of ESF-6, which incorporated USDA's proposed revisions.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FEMA, as the designated primary agency for housing and as the overall coordinator for ESF-6, can effectively coordinate federal assistance in providing temporary housing for victims of future disasters, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should propose revisions as needed to ensure that the NRP fully reflects their respective agencies' capabilities for providing temporary housing assistance under ESF-6.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2008, the Department of Homeland Security released an update version of the National Response Framework's (formerly known as the National Response Plan) Emergency Support Function No.6 (ESF-6). The updated ESF-6 reflects the Department of Housing and Urban Development's expanded capabilities for providing temporary housing assistance following Presidential declared disasters.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FEMA, as the designated primary agency for housing and as the overall coordinator for ESF-6, can effectively coordinate federal assistance in providing temporary housing for victims of future disasters, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should propose revisions as needed to ensure that the NRP fully reflects their respective agencies' capabilities for providing temporary housing assistance under ESF-6.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) proposed revisions to the National Response Framework (formerly known as the National Response Plan) to reflect the VA's full capabilities to provide temporary housing assistance under the framework's Emergency Support Function No.6 (ESF-6). In January 2008, the Department of Homeland Security released an updated version of ESF-6, which incorporated VA's proposed revisions.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FEMA, as the designated primary agency for housing and as the overall coordinator for ESF-6, can effectively coordinate federal assistance in providing temporary housing for victims of future disasters, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should propose revisions as needed to ensure that the NRP fully reflects their respective agencies' capabilities for providing temporary housing assistance under ESF-6.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2008, the Department of Homeland Security released an update version of the National Response Framework's (formerly known as the National Response Plan) Emergency Support Function No.6 (ESF-6). The updated ESF-6 reflects the Department of Treasury's expanded capabilities for providing assistance to individuals and businesses following Presidential declared disasters.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FEMA, as the designated primary agency for housing and as the overall coordinator for ESF-6, can effectively coordinate federal assistance in providing temporary housing for victims of future disasters, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Defense, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should develop fact sheets outlining appropriate roles and responsibilities, notification and activation procedures, and agency specific authorities pertaining to their disaster housing capabilities, as required by the ESF-6 standard operating procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2009, FEMA released the National Disaster Housing Strategy (NDHS) and Annexes to, among other things, describe the full scope of options for providing housing assistance to those affected by disasters. The NDHS and Annex 1 (Overview of Disaster Housing Programs for Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Government and Nongovernmental Organizations) provide details on the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) ESF-6 roles and responsibilities, specific USDA programs that can be used to provide disaster housing assistance, and the notification and activation procedures for implementing these programs following disasters.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FEMA, as the designated primary agency for housing and as the overall coordinator for ESF-6, can effectively coordinate federal assistance in providing temporary housing for victims of future disasters, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Defense, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should develop fact sheets outlining appropriate roles and responsibilities, notification and activation procedures, and agency specific authorities pertaining to their disaster housing capabilities, as required by the ESF-6 standard operating procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2009, FEMA released the National Disaster Housing Strategy (NDHS) and Annexes to, among other things, describe the full scope of options for providing housing assistance to those affected by disasters. The NDHS and Annex 1 (Overview of Disaster Housing Programs for Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Government and Nongovernmental Organizations) provide details on the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) ESF-6 roles and responsibilities, specific HUD programs that can be used to provide disaster housing assistance, and the notification and activation procedures for implementing these programs following disasters.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FEMA, as the designated primary agency for housing and as the overall coordinator for ESF-6, can effectively coordinate federal assistance in providing temporary housing for victims of future disasters, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Defense, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should develop fact sheets outlining appropriate roles and responsibilities, notification and activation procedures, and agency specific authorities pertaining to their disaster housing capabilities, as required by the ESF-6 standard operating procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2009, FEMA released the National Disaster Housing Strategy (NDHS) and Annexes to, among other things, describe the full scope of options for providing housing to those affected by disasters. The NDHS and Annex 1 (Overview of Disaster Housing Programs for Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Government and Nongovernmental Organizations) provide details on the Department of Veterans Affair's (VA) ESF-6 roles and responsibilities, specific VA programs that can be used to provide disaster housing assistance, and the notification and activation procedures for implementing these programs following disasters.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FEMA, as the designated primary agency for housing and as the overall coordinator for ESF-6, can effectively coordinate federal assistance in providing temporary housing for victims of future disasters, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Defense, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should develop fact sheets outlining appropriate roles and responsibilities, notification and activation procedures, and agency specific authorities pertaining to their disaster housing capabilities, as required by the ESF-6 standard operating procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

    Status: Open

    Comments: According to DoD, the department is developing policies for using military installations as potential housing sources in the event of natural disasters. DoD did not provide specific timeframes when the policies would be issued.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FEMA, as the designated primary agency for housing and as the overall coordinator for ESF-6, can effectively coordinate federal assistance in providing temporary housing for victims of future disasters, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Defense, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs should develop fact sheets outlining appropriate roles and responsibilities, notification and activation procedures, and agency specific authorities pertaining to their disaster housing capabilities, as required by the ESF-6 standard operating procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2009, FEMA released the National Disaster Housing Strategy (NDHS) and Annexes to, among other things, describe the full scope of options for providing housing assistance to those affected by disasters. The NDHS and Annex 1 (Overview of Disaster Housing Programs for Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Government and Nongovernmental Organizations) provide details on the Department of Treasury's (Treasury) ESF-6 roles and responsibilities, specific Treasury programs and tax law provisions that can be used to provide assistance to disaster victims, and the notification and activation procedures for implementing these programs following disasters.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that ESF-6 support agencies are prepared to help expeditiously house victims of future disasters, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs should develop operational plans that provide details on how their respective agencies will meet their temporary housing responsibilities under ESF-6.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

    Status: Open

    Comments: As part of the National Disaster Housing Task Force, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal agencies developed a draft concept of operations (CONOPS) in April/May 2009 that, among other things, was intended to explain the federal government's disaster housing role in operational terms and include an evaluation of ESF-6. According to FEMA, the task force is working to finalize the CONOPS, but the agency did not provide a specific timeframe when the document would be issued in final form.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that ESF-6 support agencies are prepared to help expeditiously house victims of future disasters, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs should develop operational plans that provide details on how their respective agencies will meet their temporary housing responsibilities under ESF-6.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Under ESF-6, the temporary housing responsibilities of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) include, among other things, providing information on USDA-financed, currently available, habitable housing units that are not under lease or under agreement of sale. USDA?s plans to meet its responsibilities are detailed in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between USDA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and USDA guidance. The MOU provides details on the procedures whereby FEMA may utilize both single family and multiple housing units which are habitable and to which USDA has title and possession to provide temporary housing to victims of major disasters or emergencies declared by the President. In addition, USDA guidance issued in November 2007 that provides details on how it will provide assistance to individuals and families in its Single Family Housing program whose primary residences are damaged or destroyed by events covered by a Presidential disaster declaration. Finally, USDA guidance also provides details on how it will provide disaster assistance under its Multi-Family Housing programs. For example, USDA may provide individuals who participate in these programs and are made homeless as a result of a disaster with a Letter of Priority Entitlement, moving the disaster victims to the top of the waiting list in other USDA-financed properties.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that ESF-6 support agencies are prepared to help expeditiously house victims of future disasters, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs should develop operational plans that provide details on how their respective agencies will meet their temporary housing responsibilities under ESF-6.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Under ESF-6, the temporary housing responsibilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) include developing and maintaining plans to make housing assets that are habitable, to which VA has title and possession, for use by survivors in catastrophic disasters. VA?s plans to meet its responsibilities are detailed in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between VA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which VA and FEMA last modified in 2009. The MOU provides details on the working relationship between VA and FEMA concerning the use of VA-acquired properties in the event of a major disaster or emergency. For example, the MOU states that upon receiving a request from FEMA for housing VA will lease habitable housing units to FEMA-eligible disaster survivors for a period up to 18 months from the date of the disaster declaration, unless VA and FEMA agree that an extension is appropriate. The MOU also states that VA will determine an appropriate rental payment up to the fair market rent, as determined by HUD.

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