Disaster Management:

Recent Disasters Demonstrate the Need to Improve the Nation's Response Strategy

T-RCED-93-46: Published: May 25, 1993. Publicly Released: May 25, 1993.

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GAO discussed the nation's response to disasters. GAO noted that: (1) the federal response plan is inadequate for dealing with catastrophic disasters, since it lacks provisions for a comprehensive assessment of damages and the needs of disaster victims; (2) the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needs to improve the national response system by establishing a FEMA disaster unit to improve decisionmaking on disaster assistance, increasing reliance on the Department of Defense (DOD) to provide mass care, ensuring presidential involvement and leadership before and after catastrophic disasters, and enhancing state and local governments' preparedness and response capabilities; (3) FEMA must reorganize to overcome institutional and cultural barriers that prevent effective interagency cooperation; (4) other federal agencies, such as the Forest Service, could provide back-up services to FEMA and DOD; and (5) some federal agencies do not have authorization to make disaster preparations and are reluctant to make advance preparations without assurance of reimbursement from FEMA.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Post-Katrina Act section 681 (Stafford Act Section 402 and 502), General Federal Assistance section amends the Stafford Act to authorize the President to provide accelerated federal assistance in the absence of a specific request where necessary to save lives, prevent human suffering, or mitigate severe damage in a major disaster or emergency. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    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.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Title 10 United States Code, section 12304 (c)(1) has been amended twice--in 2006 and in 2008. However, these amendments did not respond to our Matter for Congressional Consideration and the latest revision, which occurred in 2008, returned this portion of the code to the language that was in place prior to the 2006 revision. As a result, this recommendation is closed as not implemented.

    Matter: The Congress may wish to consider moving statutory restrictions on DOD's authority to activate reserve units for catastrophic disaster relief.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Post-Katrina Act section 611 (Homeland Security Act, section 509), requires the Secretary of Homeland Security, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator, to provide a clear chain of command that accounts for the roles of the FEMA Administrator, the Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO), and the Principal Federal Official (PFO), as amended by the Post-Katrina Act. For Stafford Act incidents (i.e., presidentially-declared emergencies or major disasters), upon the recommendation of the FEMA Administrator and the Secretary of Homeland Security, the President appoints an FCO. The FCO has responsibility for administering Stafford Act authorities, including the commitment of FEMA resources and the issuance of mission assignments to other federal departments or agencies. Within the Unified Coordination Group at the Joint Field Office, the FCO is the primary federal official responsible for coordinating, integrating, and synchronizing federal response activities. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: 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

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In accordance with the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) developed Incident Management Assistance Teams (IMAT), a next generation of rapidly deployable interagency national and regional emergency response "strike" teams. These new teams will eventually replace existing Emergency Response Teams (ERT) at the national and regional level and the Federal Incident Response Support Teams (FIRST), and are designed to provide a forward Federal presence to better manage and coordinate the national response to catastrophic incidents. FEMA teams and assets include: 1) Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT)-Dedicated teams consisting of 26 members (National) and 15 members (Regional) that are rapidly deployable to an incident or incident-threatened venue to provide leadership in identification and provision of Federal assistance and support; coordinate and integrate inter-jurisdictional response; and possess the capability to provide initial situational awareness for decision-makers. IMATs can be deployed within two hours/on scene within 12 hours to support the local incident commander in establishing unified command; 2) Emergency Response Teams-National (ERT-N) - National-level Teams consisting of approximately 32 individuals from FEMA Headquarters and the Regions that respond to significant disaster incidents to help coordinate disaster response activities and deployment of national response assets and resources; and 3) ERT-Advanced (ERT-A) - Teams in each FEMA Region, made up of approximately 25 individuals that can be deployed in the early phases of an incident to work directly with States to assess the disaster impact, gain situational awareness, help coordinate response, and respond to specific State requests for assistance.

    Recommendation: The federal government needs to develop a catastrophic disaster response capability. Accordingly, FEMA should establish a disaster unit headquartered in FEMA. This unit would be comprised 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 participants can meet those needs. It also would provide up-to-date information to the White House so that the president's designated official is 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

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: While the extent of the federal government's catastrophic disaster response capability has not yet been comprehensively and quantitatively assessed and we are currently conducting a review to identify whether there are additional activities that could further this effort, DHS/FEMA developed the capability to deploy resources in anticipation of a disaster for example, as demonstrated in its respond to Hurricane Sandy, arguably a catastrophic disaster (given its economic impact on the affected states in the Northeast U.S.) In terms of coordination with DOD to assess what resources will be needed to supplement those of the Red Cross in meeting mass care needs, DOD has begun to actively engage in planning activities with FEMA regions, as we reported in GAO 13-763 (DOD complex catastrophe planning.) In that report, we found that the Defense Coordinating officer in FEMA Region IX has worked with officials to developing Pre-Scripted Mission Assignments to ensure supplementary resources are prepared.

    Recommendation: The federal government needs to develop a catastrophic disaster response capability. 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 actively 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

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: While the extent of the federal government's catastrophic disaster response capability has not yet been comprehensively and quantitatively assessed and we are currently conducting a review to identify whether there are additional activities that could further this effort, FEMA has (1) consolidated multiple historical preparedness grant programs into the State Homeland Security Grant Program to give states additional flexibility to match grant funding with individual response needs; (2) developed and implemented the National Exercise Program and conducted exercises specifically geared towards catastrophic disaster response (ex. NLE 2010 and 2011); and (3) taken steps to assess each state's preparedness for catastrophic disaster response by requiring annual assessments in State Preparedness Reports as a requirement for eligibility for federal preparedness grants and issued a Catastrophic Disaster Report (per the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 requirement) in 2013 as we reported in GAO-14-99R ( Implementation of Select Provisions of the Post-Katrina Act.)

    Recommendation: The federal government needs to develop a catastrophic disaster response capability. Accordingly, FEMA should enhance the capacity of state and local governments to respond to catastrophic disasters by (1) continuing to give them increasing 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

 

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