Disaster Assistance:

Federal Efforts to Assist Group Site Residents with Employment, Services for Families with Children, and Transportation

GAO-09-81: Published: Dec 11, 2008. Publicly Released: Dec 15, 2008.

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Kay E. Brown
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In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused more damage than any other single natural disaster in U.S. history, with Hurricane Rita adding to the devastation. The hurricanes hit some of the most distressed areas in the country. Louisiana and Mississippi had the highest poverty rates in the United States, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Hurricane Katrina destroyed or made uninhabitable an estimated 300,000 homes, many of which had families with children. In response to this destruction, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided many affected households with trailers for temporary housing in Louisiana and Mississippi. Those trailers not placed on homeowners' property were located in group sites. Although FEMA's guidance suggests that group sites should be located near existing supermarkets, public transportation, schools, and health care facilities, FEMA officials said the agency was not always able to locate temporary housing in these settings because of the level of destruction and, sometimes, opposition from communities. As of May 2008, several thousand households remained in group sites. Given the number of people who remained in group sites more than 2 years after Hurricane Katrina, GAO was asked to address a range of disaster assistance services and is conducting work looking at case management, housing, health care, and the role of not-for-profit organizations in disaster recovery. This report focuses on the federal government's efforts to assist group site residents with employment, services for families with children, and transportation. Specifically, this report addresses the following key questions: (1) What is known about the number and location of the group sites and their residents? (2) What did the federal government do to assist group site residents with employment, services for families with children, and transportation? (3) What challenges did federal and state agencies face in providing this assistance to group site residents?

FEMA located more than 500 group sites, housing over 20,000 households over time, throughout counties in Louisiana and Mississippi. About another 106,000 households received trailers that were placed on their property while repairs were being made to their homes. The majority of group sites had less than 50 households, although some group sites had several hundred households residing in them. Most of the households who were placed in group sites reported that they were renters before the storm. While the majority of individuals who received a FEMA trailer reported being employed, about 65 percent reported less than $20,000 in income. About one-fifth reported no source of income, in some cases, they were unemployed and disabled. While FEMA does not update data on group site residents to reflect current employment status or income levels, some state and FEMA officials we spoke with in early 2008 stated that those who remained in the sites the longest were the hardest to serve people including the elderly, persons with disabilities, and unemployed people. Federal agencies provided assistance to hurricane victims through a variety of programs; group site residents may have received services, but data generally do not distinguish group site residents from other recipients. Federal agencies offered flexibilities within existing programs, distributed additional funding, and created new programs to assist states in providing employment services, services to families with children, and transportation for all eligible hurricane victims. Many of these federal actions were time-limited and available in 2005 and 2006. While federal agencies took actions to help all eligible hurricane victims, we identified only one federal program--LA Moves, a bus service--that specifically targeted group site residents, but services were limited and underutilized. This program started in January 2007, but the retirement of routes began immediately, with only two group sites receiving services as of June 2007. Some state agencies and not-for-profit organizations did provide outreach for other services to group sites. The largest group site, Renaissance Village, had several services offered on-site, including early childhood education programs, after-school programs, employment services, and transit for persons with disabilities, but was unique in this regard, according to some service providers. Federal and state agencies faced challenges obtaining information about group sites and group site residents and having available guidance to determine the type and scope of emergency transportation to fund. Regarding the first challenge, state agencies said they faced challenges in obtaining information from FEMA about group sites or their residents. However, these state officials may not have been aware of or understood FEMA's information sharing guidelines or procedural requirements for requesting data. Regarding the second challenge, FEMA did not have clear guidance or criteria to assist with emergency transportation planning including guidance that defined the types or scope of transit it would fund or criteria for determining the duration of that funding. In the absence of such guidance, FEMA had to make difficult decisions about the extent of its authority to fund transit operations.

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