Key Issues > Disaster Assistance
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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.

View the Report

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.

Ongoing Work

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.

As of December 2019, GAO has spent $12.8 million out of the $14 million we received, and has issued a number of related reports.

Looking for our recommendations? Click on any report to find each associated recommendation and its current implementation status.


Cuppa' GAO: Coffee With Our Experts - Disaster Assistance
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    • Christopher P. Currie
    • Director, Homeland Security and Justice
    • (404) 679-1875