Disaster Recovery:

FEMA's Long-term Assistance Was Helpful to State and Local Governments but Had Some Limitations

GAO-10-404: Published: Mar 30, 2010. Publicly Released: Apr 14, 2010.

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The administration is developing the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) in order to enhance the nation's ability to deliver recovery assistance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Long-Term Community Recovery Branch (LTCR) is responsible for leading a network of primarily federal agencies, known as ESF-14, that supports long-term recovery. LTCR's experiences offer potential insights for developing the NDRF. GAO was asked to report on (1) the roles that LTCR played in recent disasters, (2) broad criteria and timing challenges that affected this assistance, (3) the effectiveness of specific coordination practices, and (4) the effectiveness of specific planning assistance practices. GAO focused on three disasters with significant LTCR involvement: the Greensburg tornado (2007), the Iowa floods (2008), and Hurricane Ike (2008). GAO reviewed agency documents and policies and interviewed relevant federal, state, and local officials.

As the federal lead for long-term disaster recovery, FEMA's LTCR played two major roles in the three disasters that we reviewed--facilitating the coordination of federal, state, and nongovernmental assistance for recovery and helping communities to develop long-term recovery plans. GAO found two broad challenges related to this assistance. First, the criteria for when to involve LTCR and ESF-14 in a specific disaster are vague, which resulted in uncertainty among other federal agencies in the ESF-14 network and state recovery officials. Second, in some cases assistance began before state and local governments had the capacity to effectively work with LTCR and ended before critical long-term recovery coordination and planning needs were fully addressed. Federal, state, and local officials said that LTCR's facilitation of regular interagency meetings to coordinate federal and state partners helped to identify and effectively leverage recovery resources, as well as identify coordination problems and other concerns. For example, the town of Greensburg, Kansas, determined that replacing its destroyed water tower with one of the same capacity it had before the tornado would be insufficient for the community's expected future growth. As a result of interagency meetings conducted by LTCR, federal and state agencies, and others found a way to leverage resources from their programs in order to build a higher-capacity water tower that better addressed the city's long-term recovery needs. Federal, state, and local officials also identified two barriers to LTCR's coordination efforts. LTCR was not always able to obtain or sustain the participation of all of the agencies that it sought to coordinate with. Even when it did have full agency participation, LTCR was not always able to secure the involvement of agency officials with sufficient authority to resolve the program problems that arose. LTCR's planning assistance--including facilitating community meetings and identifying potential funding resources for recovery projects--helped affected communities to develop and implement long-term recovery plans. In Iowa City, LTCR identified possible federal funding sources for specific projects in the city's recovery plan and advised the city on how to prepare effective project proposals. Local officials credit this assistance with helping the city to be able to secure federal funding that it expects to receive for its top two recovery priorities. However, state and local officials also identified areas where LTCR assistance could be improved. State and local officials in Texas recovering from Hurricane Ike said that LTCR's process of ranking projects in Galveston's recovery plan had the effect of fostering unrealistic expectations among the public about what projects would be funded. In addition, in one of the three disasters that we reviewed, LTCR did not effectively transfer recovery planning tools, such as a guide on federal funding timelines, to the relevant officials prior to their withdrawal from the state. LTCR officials recognized that their transfer of information in Texas could have been more effective, citing time limitations as one reason for the challenge.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2011, FEMA finalized the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF), which established a checklist of roles and activities for federal recovery officials during post disaster recovery, including recommending that federal officials provide timely, accurate and accessible information to the public and manage expectations in coordination with local, State, Tribal and other stakeholders. The NDRF checklist also recommends that, as part of recovery planning assistance: (1) the federal government ensure local ownership of the early recovery process through the engagement of local, State and Tribal authorities in the planning, execution and monitoring of recovery actions: (2) provide planning guidance, tools, resources and best practices to local, State and Tribal governments to facilitate their recovery planning; and (3) develop an accessible public information campaign to increase stakeholder awareness of the processes involved in recovery.

    Recommendation: As a result of insights based on the experiences of FEMA's LTCR and recognizing the administration's current efforts to develop the NDRF and improve recovery authorities and programs, the Secretary of Homeland Security, as a leader of these efforts, should communicate more clearly the objectives and processes used when assessing the value of specific recovery projects to help prevent unrealistic expectations about the implementation of such projects among members of the affected community. Toward this end, FEMA should resolve any inconsistencies in relevant guidance or terminology and take steps to ensure that these assessments appropriately reflect the feasibility of projects, including their importance to state and local leaders as well as the broader community.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2011, FEMA finalized the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF), which established the role of Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator (FDRC) as a leader in federal disaster response and recovery assistance. Specifically, the NDRF assigns this official with responsibility and authority to facilitate the coordination of information and activities among the federal agencies whose programs, technical assistance and expertise are relevant to recovery, within the framework of the Recovery Support Strategy. In large-scale disasters and catastrophic incidents, the NDRC states that the FDRC will take over as the lead from the FCO, when the FCO demobilizes, to continue management of Federal recovery resources, for those incidents that require continued significant interagency disaster recovery coordination. This includes coordination of the longer-term RSF structures associated with the NDRF that continue operation.

    Recommendation: As a result of insights based on the experiences of FEMA's LTCR and recognizing the administration's current efforts to develop the NDRF and improve recovery authorities and programs, the Secretary of Homeland Security, as a leader of these efforts, should evaluate and assess, as part of the new NDRF or related efforts, what would be an appropriate level of authority for the entity responsible for coordinating long-term recovery in order for it to foster effective coordination among federal agencies involved in disaster recovery and to resolve related policy and program conflicts that may arise.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2011, FEMA finalized the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF), which established a recovery structure intended to more effectively align the timing and level of long-term community recovery assistance with the capacity of state and local governments and the need for coordination assistance. The NDRF establishes a Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator (FDRC) and assigns this official to be involved in disaster recovery immediately after the disaster and to stay past the close out of federal disaster response activities, in order to ensure that recovery is supported during its various phases. The NDRF acknowledges that the transition from disaster response to initial recovery operations and then to recovery varies. Therefore, the FDRC is charged with closely coordinating the progress and timelines of recovery with local, State and Tribal officials as well as other key stakeholders in order to reinforce a shared understanding of the objectives and expectations for the recovery effort and eventual Federal demobilization.

    Recommendation: As a result of insights based on the experiences of FEMA's LTCR and recognizing the administration's current efforts to develop the NDRF and improve recovery authorities and programs, the Secretary of Homeland Security, as a leader of these efforts, should establish, as part of the new NDRF or related efforts, a long-term recovery structure that more effectively aligns the timing and level of involvement of the entity responsible for coordinating long-term community recovery assistance with both the capacity of state and local governments to work with them and the need for coordination assistance, which may last beyond the operation of the Joint Field Office (JFO). One approach could allow for the deployment of resources in phases to provide long-term recovery assistance tailored to a community's evolving needs, and could be provided remotely when necessary, similar to LTCR's experience during recovery from the 2007 tornado in Greensburg, Kansas.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2011, FEMA finalized the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF), which established a process that FEMA and others will use to determine whether federal recovery support will be deployed to a disaster, including who is involved in the decision-making and what factors or criteria they will consider. Specifically, the NDRC states that activation of recovery assistance will depend on the magnitude of the disaster, requirements of affected communities, and availability and appropriateness of Federal resources. The NDRF also outlines an assessment protocol intended to determine which coordination structures are necessary and appropriate under the circumstances, among other things. From this assessment, the Federal Coordinating Officer, in coordination with the State, activates the appropriate recovery support assistance, if necessary.

    Recommendation: As a result of insights based on the experiences of FEMA's LTCR and recognizing the administration's current efforts to develop the NDRF and improve recovery authorities and programs, the Secretary of Homeland Security, as a leader of these efforts, should develop clear and consistent criteria that identify factors that determine whether and how the entity responsible for coordinating long-term recovery will become involved in a specific disaster. Such criteria should provide additional guidance about factors that determine whether the entity responsible for coordinating and planning becomes involved in recovery.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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