Response and Recovery
The 2017 and 2018 hurricanes and wildfires affected millions of individuals and caused billions of dollars in damages. In March 2019, the Midwest also experienced historic flooding that affected millions of acres of agriculture and damaged significant infrastructure. Since 2005, the federal government has spent at least $450 billion on disaster assistance.
Our report on the federal response to the 2017 hurricanes and wildfires found numerous challenges slowed FEMA’s work. For example, complex logistics for supplies due to distances from the mainland, and the need to provide a number of services due to widespread devastation and loss of power.
Watch our Facebook Live chat with Chris Currie, a Director in our Homeland Security and Justice team, discussing a range of issues related to federal disaster response, recovery, and resilience.
Strengthening Response and Building Resilience
Weather disasters, and federal spending on them, are expected to increase due to climate change, as our High Risk List indicates. Federal efforts to promote disaster resilience can help limit the damage—and costs--of climate-related events on people and property. In October 2019, we issued a Disaster Resilience Framework that lays out some broad principles that can help guide these efforts.
House elevation and metal roofs are examples of disaster resilience measures in Florida.
We have also made numerous other recommendations to FEMA to strengthen disaster response efforts.
- Disaster Resilience. FEMA has multiple grant programs that can help jurisdictions plan and implement disaster resilience projects. For example, FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant program helps jurisdictions affected by a disaster take actions to reduce future losses as they recover. However, we found that, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, jurisdictions faced a variety of challenges using these funds to maximize resilience. An investment strategy to better prioritize, integrate, and balance disaster resilience efforts would help.
- Federal Coordination. We’ve identified a number of ways that FEMA could improve its ability to manage the government’s response to disasters. For example, we recommended that FEMA collect information on the status of federal interagency efforts to address issues identified during national emergency-management exercises and actual disasters.
- Federal Funding. FEMA needs to conduct a more comprehensive assessment of a jurisdiction's ability to respond to and recover from a disaster without federal assistance. FEMA is also considering establishing a disaster deductible, which would require a predetermined level of financial or other commitment from a state or local government before FEMA would provide financial assistance under the Public Assistance program.
Due to the unprecedented number of disasters in 2017, Congress authorized additional funding to assist states and localities in responding to and recovering from these disasters. Congress also authorized additional funding for federal audit agencies to conduct disaster-specific audits. See FEMA's website for more information on how funds are being spent.
GAO Disaster Funding Spent as of December 2019
GAO was one of 22 agencies that received these funds. As of December 2019, GAO has spent $12.8 million out of the $14 million we received, and has issued the following reports:
National Flood Insurance Program
Flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is a key component of the federal government's efforts to improve resilience to flood damage. However, we’ve found that the program has experienced significant challenges because FEMA is tasked with pursuing competing goals —keeping flood insurance affordable and keeping the program fiscally solvent. Emphasizing affordability has led to premium rates that in many cases do not reflect the full risk of loss and produce insufficient premiums to pay for claims. In turn, this has transferred some of the financial burden of flood risk from individual property owners to taxpayers as a whole.
Consequently, NFIP has had to borrow from the Department of the Treasury to pay claims from major natural disasters. Most notably, FEMA borrowed $17.5 billion for claims related to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma in 2005; $6.25 billion for claims related to Superstorm Sandy in 2012; and $1.6 billion for claims related to a series of floods in 2016. As of March 2017, FEMA’s debt stood at $24.6 billion, but later that year, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria produced policyholder claims that FEMA would be unable to pay before reaching its borrowing limit. In October 2017, the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Requirements Act canceled $16 billion of NFIP’s debt to enable FEMA to pay these claims. As of February 2018, FEMA’s debt stood at $20.5 billion.
Without reforms, the financial condition of NFIP could continue to worsen. As Congress considers reforms to NFIP, we suggested that it consider comprehensive reform to improve the program’s solvency and enhance the nation’s resilience to flood risk.
Six Areas That Constitute Comprehensive Flood Insurance Reform
Source: GAO. | GAO-17-425
We’ve also recommended several ways that FEMA, which administers NFIP, could improve its administration of this program, such as updating its compensation practices for private insurers, allowing prorated refunds for certain customers who switch to private insurance, improving its rate-setting methods, and providing affordability assistance.
The United States faces public health threats from viruses (such as Zika), the intentional release of hazardous biological agents (such as anthrax), and other chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) agents. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) leads federal efforts to effectively respond to these public health emergencies.
We’ve found that HHS can strengthen its ability to prepare for these types of threats. For example, it could improve coordination between federal departments and state and local governments during health emergency responses.
HHS could also ensure that the nation's health care system has "surge capacity"—that is, the ability to respond to mass casualty events and care for a sudden influx of patients.
Additionally, HHS could set clear priorities for developing and acquiring drugs and vaccines to respond to CBRN agents and infectious diseases. For example, the agency could establish facilities to rapidly produce drugs and vaccines during an emergency.