Disaster Assistance:

Guidance Needed for FEMA's 'Fast Track' Housing Assistance Process

RCED-98-1: Published: Oct 17, 1997. Publicly Released: Oct 17, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined several issues pertaining to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) use of the Fast Track process and FEMA's crisis-counseling assistance to victims of the Northridge earthquake, focusing on: (1) the authority and rationale for the Fast Track process; (2) FEMA's experience with the Fast Track process in Northridge and whether the process was influenced by the Office of Inspector General's recommendations; (3) the advantages and disadvantages of the Fast Track process, including the amounts of payments that FEMA designated for recovery and subsequently recovered and the reasons for ineligibility; and (4) FEMA's criteria and process for providing crisis-counseling funds and ensuring their use for authorized purposes.

GAO noted that: (1) the legislation authorizing FEMA's temporary housing assistance has no explicit provision for a process such as Fast Track; (2) however, as FEMA concluded, the act gives the agency wide latitude in providing expeditious assistance for disaster victims; (3) FEMA's rationale in implementing the Fast Track process following the Northridge earthquake was to assist the largest number of disaster victims in the shortest possible amount of time; (4) in implementing the process, FEMA experienced operational difficulties including the inconsistent application of criteria when designating zip codes; (5) because of these errors, not all Northridge victims in similar circumstances were treated the same; (6) FEMA also experienced constraints with the computer software used to process applications; (7) these difficulties, combined with an enormous volume of applications for assistance and FEMA's decisions on applicants' eligibility for payments made under both the regular and Fast Track processes, may have contributed to FEMA's provision of housing assistance beyond actual needs; (8) FEMA has not developed written guidance for implementing the Fast Track process, even though FEMA's Inspector General recommended establishing formal procedures after the Fast Track process's first (and only other) use in 1992; (9) a principal advantage of the Fast Track process is that it provides temporary housing assistance grants for some applicants more quickly than would the regular process; (10) according to FEMA officials involved in the response to the Northridge earthquake, Fast Track provided an intangible benefit by demonstrating to the victims and the general public that help was actually on the way; (11) a principal disadvantage to Fast Track is the relative loss of control over the disbursement of federal funds and the subsequent need to recover ineligible payments; (12) FEMA ultimately designated for recovery 6.7 percent ($9.6 million of $143 million) of the temporary housing assistance provided under the Fast Track process for 3,856 Northridge earthquake applicants; (13) FEMA provides crisis-counseling funding for screening and diagnosing individuals, short-term crisis counseling, community outreach, consultation, and educational services; and (14) for funds provided after the Northridge earthquake, FEMA officials said that they visited all service providers and that center officials evaluated their accounting procedures and controls and found them to be satisfactory.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA has developed written guidance that addresses general guidelines for when the expedited delivery process for disaster housing assistance (also known as fast track) will be utilized (Response and Recovery Directorate Policy Number 4430 A/C). However, the guidance lacks specific information on exactly when and under what circumstances the process would be used. GAO is closing this recommendation because FEMA plans no further action.

    Recommendation: The Director, FEMA, should develop written guidance for the Fast Track process that specifies when and under what circumstances the process will be used.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA has written guidance for the expedited delivery process for disaster housing assistance (fast track) which discusses how to determine the eligibility of applicants and criteria for avoiding excess payments to approved applicants (Response and Recovery Directorate Policy Number 4430 A/C).

    Recommendation: The Director, FEMA, should develop written guidance for the Fast Track process that explains how to implement the process, including identifying eligible victims and avoiding payments in excess of needs.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

 

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