Disaster Management:

Improving the Nation's Response to Catastrophic Disasters

RCED-93-186: Published: Jul 23, 1993. Publicly Released: Jul 23, 1993.

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Pursuant to congressional requests, GAO examined the adequacy of the federal strategy for responding to catastrophic disasters and solutions for improving it.

GAO found that: (1) the Federal Response Plan lacks a provision for a comprehensive assessment of damages and the needs of disaster victims; (2) the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needs a disaster unit whose primary mission is planning for and responding to catastrophic disasters; (3) the Red Cross and its large network of volunteers is suited to provide mass care and coordinate the efforts of other federal agencies; (4) the Department of Defense (DOD) is the only organization capable of providing, transporting, and distributing sufficient quantities of items needed in the most severe catastrophic disasters; (5) federal response time could be reduced by encouraging agencies to do as much advance preparation as possible prior to disaster declaration; (6) FEMA needs to use its existing resources to better prepare state and local governments for catastrophic disaster response; and (7) FEMA provides state and local governments with approximately $100 million annually in civil defense grants.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • 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

    Matters for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: The Congress may wish to consider giving FEMA and other federal agencies explicit authority to take actions to prepare for catastrophic disasters when there is warning.

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: The Congress may wish to consider removing statutory restrictions on DOD'S authority to activate Reserve units for catastrophic disaster relief.

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The federal government needs to develop a capability to respond to catastrophic disasters. Accordingly, FEMA should enhance the capacity of state and local governments to respond to catastrophic disasters by (1) continuing to give them increased flexibility to match grant funding with individual response needs, (2) upgrading training and exercises specifically geared towards catastrophic disaster response, and (3) assessing each state's preparedness for catastrophic disaster response.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The federal government needs to develop a capability to respond to catastrophic disasters. Accordingly, FEMA should improve its catastrophic disaster response capability by using existing authority to aggressively respond to catastrophic disasters, assessing the extent of damage, and then advising state and local officials of identified needs and the federal resources available to address them, as well as the extent to which DOD resources will be needed to supplement those of the Red Cross in meeting mass care needs.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The federal government needs to develop a capability to respond to catastrophic disasters. Accordingly, FEMA should establish a disaster unit headquartered in FEMA. This unit would be composed of a core of FEMA staff and would be augmented by resources and staff from other key federal agencies. The unit would-using analyses of state and local governments' capability and preparedness to respond to catastrophic disasters-predict, plan for, and assess the damage resulting from catastrophic disasters. The unit would also translate its damage assessments into estimates of immediate response needs, including the extent to which FEMA and the other federal agencies can meet those needs. It also would provide up-to-date information to the White House so that the President's designated official would be able to effectively oversee the federal response. On the basis of its assessments and needs determinations, the unit would make concrete recommendations to the governor of the affected state regarding the amount, type, and cost of federal assistance that should be sought. The disaster unit should direct any needed federal relief effort.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure vital Presidential leadership for catastrophic disasters, the President should designate a senior official in the White House to oversee federal preparedness for and responses to catastrophic disasters. This official should not only monitor the initial federal response to catastrophic disasters but also have ongoing responsibility for oversight of FEMA and other federal agencies' efforts to plan, prepare for, and respond to such disasters.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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