Key Issues > Disaster Assistance > Response & Recovery
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Disaster Assistance

Recent hurricanes, wildfires, and other events have highlighted the challenges the federal government faces in responding effectively to natural and man-made disasters—both in terms of immediate response and for long-term recovery efforts.

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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.

Cuppa GAO: Coffee With Our Experts, chat with Chris Currie, Director, Homeland Security and Justice

View the transcript
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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.

GAO Disaster Funding Spent as of December 2019

Pie chart display proportion of funds spent versus funds remaining.

Related GAO Reports

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 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:

Wildland Fire: Federal Agencies' Efforts to Reduce Wildland Fuels and Lower Risk to Communities and Ecosystems
GAO-20-52, Dec 19, 2019

U.S. Virgin Islands Recovery: Additional Actions Could Strengthen FEMA's Key Disaster Recovery Efforts
GAO-20-54, Nov 19, 2019

Superfund: EPA Should Take Additional Actions to Manage Risks from Climate Change
GAO-20-73, Nov 18, 2019

Emergency Transportation Relief: Federal Transit Administration and FEMA Took Actions to Coordinate, but Steps Are Needed to Address Risk of Duplicate Funding
GAO-20-85, Nov 13, 2019

Disaster Resilience Framework: Principles for Analyzing Federal Efforts to Facilitate and Promote Resilience to Natural Disasters
GAO-20-100SP, Oct 23, 2019

Disaster Recovery: Recent Disasters Highlight Progress and Challenges
GAO-20-183T, Oct 22, 2019

Highway Emergency Relief: Federal Highway Administration Should Enhance Accountability over Project Decisions
GAO-20-32, Oct 17, 2019

Wildfire Disasters: FEMA Could Take Additional Actions to Address Unique Response and Recovery Challenges
GAO-20-5, Oct 9, 2019

Puerto Rico Electricity Grid Recovery: Better Information and Enhanced Coordination Is Needed to Address Challenges
GAO-20-141, Oct 8, 2019

Disaster Response: HHS Should Address Deficiencies Highlighted by Recent Hurricanes in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico
GAO-19-592, Sep 20, 2019

Disaster Response: FEMA and the American Red Cross Need to Ensure Key Mass Care Organizations are Included in Coordination and Planning
GAO-19-526, Sep 19, 2019

Disaster Response: Federal Assistance and Selected States and Territory Efforts to Identify Deaths from 2017 Hurricanes
GAO-19-486, Sep 13, 2019

2017 Disaster Relief Oversight: Strategy Needed to Ensure Agencies’ Internal Control Plans Provide Sufficient Information
GAO-19-479, Jun 18, 2019

Disaster Assistance: FEMA Action Needed to Better Support Individuals Who Are Older or Have Disabilities
GAO-19-318, May 14, 2019

2017 Disaster Contracting: Actions Needed to Improve the Use of Post-Disaster Contracts to Support Response and Recovery
GAO-19-281, April 24, 2019

Disaster Recovery: Better Monitoring of Block Grant Funds Is Needed
GAO-19-232, Mar 25, 2019

Puerto Rico Hurricanes: Status of FEMA Funding, Oversight, and Recovery Challenges
GAO-19-256, Mar 14, 2019

2017 Disaster Contracting: Action Needed to Better Ensure More Effective Use and Management of Advance Contracts
GAO-19-93, Dec 6, 2018

Stay tuned—we are currently working on over 20 more.

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