Disaster Assistance:

Federal, State, and Local Responses to Natural Disasters Need Improvement

RCED-91-43: Published: Mar 6, 1991. Publicly Released: Mar 6, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) performance in responding to Hurricane Hugo and the Loma Prieta earthquake in September and October 1989, focusing on state and local governments' and voluntary relief agencies' activities for California, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

GAO found that: (1) preparedness problems were linked to weaknesses in state and local programs, as well as to weaknesses in FEMA assistance and overall guidance; (2) emergency management capabilities among the five states varied by the state government's organizational structure, training and staffing levels, frequency of exercise drills, and frequency of presidentially declared disasters; (3) the extent of preparedness ranged from a high level of preparedness in one state to a relatively low level of preparedness in U.S. territories; (4) preparedness problems included inadequate planning and training for recovery, low participation by elected officials in training, inadequate or no standard operating procedures for response and recovery activities, and inadequate coordination between several federal agencies; (5) in four of the five states, relief agencies responded promptly and provided services and assistance that reflected an appropriate level of preparedness; (6) federal and state officials experienced problems in staffing and coordinating response activities, making immediate response less efficient; (7) coordination difficulties were exacerbated by organizational and communications problems, resulting in delayed assistance, hampered processing of assistance requests, and duplicated assistance efforts; (8) state and federal agencies' recovery activities were inefficient, resulting in delayed assistance and duplicate payments for certain activities; and (9) FEMA had difficulty in addressing the housing needs of low-income disaster victims in one state and one U.S. territory.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress has not changed the statutory basis for FEMA's disaster response efforts. However, FEMA has improved its ability to respond quickly. For example, by prepositioning personnel and materials to areas threatened with catastrophic disasters. FEMA has also taken steps to enhance state and local government's ability to respond quickly to disasters.

    Matter: Congress should consider providing FEMA with the authority to act as a first-response agency in situations where such assistance is warranted.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FEMA has resisted this recommendation, contending that providing permanent housing as a standard practice should be the role of HUD rather than FEMA. Further, this recommendation was based on a very unique circumstance created by Hurricane Hugo, in which the damage in areas of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands was so severe that there was not sufficient temporary housing available for all whose homes were rendered uninhabitable. FEMA's normal practice in such circumstances, temporarily deploying mobile homes, was not cost-effective for these locations. As a result, FEMA built small permanent residences for many whose homes were destroyed.

    Matter: Congress should consider amending section 408 of the Stafford Disaster Relief Act (P.L. 100-707) to authorize FEMA to institute approaches such as eligible-created resources that provide permanent, rather than temporary, housing to disaster victims. Such authority should be available only when special circumstances make it impracticable to provide temporary housing units.

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Title IX, Subtitle B, of the National Affordable Housing Act enables HUD to increase funding for several housing programs to repair or replace housing damaged or destroyed in a major disaster.

    Matter: Congress should either: (1) clarify whether section 402 of the Stafford Act authorizes FEMA to direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to assist state and local governments in rehabilitating or reconstructing housing for disaster victims; or (2) amend sections of the United States Housing Act of 1937 and the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 to provide appropriations directly to HUD to fund housing assistance for disaster victims.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: National Performance Review initiatives and other major redirections from FEMA's current director have essentially preempted this recommendation. Specifically, FEMA is minimizing its role in state and local planning activities. FEMA's role will be more in the nature of technical support to the states in meeting state-established goals and needs.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that local, state, and federal agencies are better prepared to respond to disasters, the Director, FEMA, should request state and local emergency management agencies to incorporate recovery activities into their emergency plans and help provide appropriate training to state and local disaster management personnel.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA has established the Capability and Hazard Identification Program to enable state and local self-assessment of their preparedness in a number of areas such as planning, training, facilities, and equipment. FEMA is also developing standards and criteria for measuring state and local performance.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that local, state and federal agencies are better prepared to respond to disasters, the Director, FEMA, should request that states establish monitoring systems to help ensure that local jurisdictions correct problems and weaknesses identified during emergency training exercises and drills.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA provides training to its own permanent and part-time (SDATEs and reservists) personnel, local hires, and other federal agencies. New courses recently developed include training on the Incident Command System, Emergency Response Team, assistance applications, and public information. Equally important, FEMA's recent reorganization directed towards an "all-hazards" approach has greatly reduced the number of FEMA employees whose primary duties do not include natural disasters.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that local, state, and federal agencies are better prepared to respond to disasters, the Director, FEMA, should periodically provide natural disaster training to FEMA headquarters and regional office staff who are not assigned to the disaster assistance program but who may be needed during large-scale natural disasters.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Federal Response Plan, agreed to by 27 federal agencies and implemented in April 1992, sets forth the roles and responsibilities of each federal agency in responding to disasters.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that local, state, and federal agencies are better prepared to respond to disasters, the Director, FEMA, should clarify, where appropriate, the roles and responsibilities of involved federal agencies by developing memoranda of understanding, or other suitable methods, to improve coordination with such agencies.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The automated registration process has been implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that local, state, and federal agencies are better prepared to respond to disasters, the Director, FEMA, should improve the FEMA computer systems to help ensure that duplicate applications for assistance are immediately identified and that automated registration is available to other agencies for their use in administering disaster assistance programs.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA and the Department of Education agreed, and the Administration proposed, in its fiscal year 1992 budget submission, that FEMA assume the total responsibility for assisting educational facilities that were damaged in a major disaster.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that local, state, and federal agencies are better prepared to respond to disasters, the Director, FEMA, should cooperate with the Department of Education in the repair or restoration of public schools so that duplicate damage inspections do not occur and schools receive necessary financial assistance more promptly.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Procedures have been established to provide rental housing assistance vouchers to disaster victims.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that local, state, and federal agencies are better prepared to respond to disasters, the Director, FEMA, should coordinate with the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and other appropriate federal, state, local, and voluntary relief agencies to develop a suitable housing recovery plan for low-income victims.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

 

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