The federal government faces challenges in responding effectively to disasters—both in terms of immediate response and long-term recovery efforts.
Since 1980, weather disasters in the U.S. have caused more than $1.6 trillion in damage. Weather disasters, and federal spending on them, are expected to increase due to climate change (as indicated by the High Risk List).
The Disaster Resilience Framework lays out 3 broad principles to guide federal efforts to promote disaster resilience:
- Information: Ensure decision makers can accurately assess risks, decide what to do, and measure outcomes
- Integration: Coordinate federal efforts and recognize connections for a “whole system” perspective
- Incentives: Provide financial and other incentives and reduce disincentives
There are also a number of actions that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can undertake to improve its ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.
- FEMA uses several scenarios—including a pandemic influenza similar to COVID-19—to help states and territories assess their own emergency response and recovery capabilities (e.g., how quickly they can restore electricity, or how much emergency housing they can provide). States and territories have a good handle on their strengths and weaknesses, but FEMA hasn’t used this information to determine the full scope of national needs.
- FEMA deployed thousands of staff to respond to multiple large-scale disasters in 2017 and 2018. However, FEMA didn’t provide reliable staffing information to the field during disasters. For example, FEMA staff cited issues with personnel who were deemed “qualified” but didn’t have the skills to effectively perform their jobs.
- It can be difficult to locate older survivors and those with disabilities immediately after a disaster—and provide the help they need to find food, medicine, and oxygen. FEMA's application for assistance contains disability questions that are easily misinterpreted, which may have led to fewer people reporting their disabilities.
- The hurricanes and fires of 2017 and 2018 affected more than 47 million people in the United States. From 2016-18, survivors received about $6 billion and 12,805 temporary housing units from FEMA's Individuals and Households Program. However, about 2.4 million people (of the 4.4 million referred to the program) were considered ineligible for this support. Common reasons for denial included insufficient damage and failure to provide supporting evidence. But FEMA could better explain its program information and eligibility decisions to applicants.
- FEMA provided almost $10 billion through its Public Assistance grant program to states and territories for debris removal and other emergency work projects following the hurricanes and wildfires in 2017. FEMA knows about some of the fraud risks to the program, such as overstated claims for debris removal and kickbacks. However, FEMA could identify even more risks and mitigate them using some leading practices for fraud risk assessment.
- After 2 hurricanes devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, FEMA identified about 10,000 damaged sites (including schools, hospitals, and roads) that needed funds to repair or rebuild. FEMA and Puerto Rico manage a Public Assistance Program that provides federal funds to state and local governments and some nonprofits to help in Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts. FEMA has issued recovery policy and guidance that are specific to Puerto Rico’s evolving conditions. But for many recovery partners, figuring out which guidance to follow and accessing it can be difficult.
- Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific-area territories had a record number of natural disasters—typhoons, earthquakes, mudslides, and volcanic eruptions—in 2018. Local officials believe FEMA’s disaster response was fairly effective, but contracting problems, workforce shortages, and cost disagreements hindered recovery efforts.
- In September 2017, two major hurricanes hit the U.S. Virgin Islands, causing billions of dollars in damage. In response, FEMA provided more than $1.9 billion in grant funding to help repair damaged infrastructure, among other efforts. FEMA also expanded a pilot program that funded home repairs to allow survivors to shelter in their homes because other emergency shelters weren’t available. FEMA has since decided not to use this program in the future because it was slower to provide help than expected. However, FEMA has not evaluated emergency shelter options for future disasters.
- Since 2017, more than 260 major disasters were declared—many of which disrupted K-12 schools and students' lives. Now, these challenges are compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Local education officials in disaster-affected areas said the pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues, delayed recovery projects, and more. While the Department of Education has awarded nearly $1.4 billion to help schools recover from these disasters, the pandemic may have made it difficult to use these funds.