Disaster Response:

FEMA and the American Red Cross Need to Ensure Key Mass Care Organizations are Included in Coordination and Planning

GAO-19-526: Published: Sep 19, 2019. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2019.

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Disaster responders faced unprecedented demands for food and shelter after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria hit within four weeks in 2017, according to FEMA.

FEMA and the Red Cross coordinate with state, local, and volunteer organizations to provide food and shelter after major disasters. We found that the agreements state and local governments made with response organizations didn’t always include information about their capacity to provide services. In some cases food and shelter needs were not met.

We made 6 recommendations aimed at improving the coordination of response activities and the measurement of response capabilities.

Food boxes prepared by the Puerto Rico Department of the Family, containing shelf-stable foods from USDA

An open box with groceries in it

An open box with groceries in it

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Kathryn A. Larin
(202) 512-7215
larink@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

For the Spanish translation of the highlights page for this document, see GAO-19-708.

What GAO Found

Following the three major U.S. hurricanes in 2017, disaster relief efforts of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross (Red Cross) benefitted from locating key partners in the same place. In-person coordination was critical to maintaining communication in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands given the prolonged power outages and damage to public structures (see photo). However, some needs related to mass care—such as shelter, food, and supply distribution—were unmet. For example, local officials in Texas said flooded roads prevented trucks from delivering supplies. Providers encountered challenges in part because state and local agreements with voluntary organizations did not always clearly detail what mass care services could be provided. Additionally, FEMA guidance and training materials do not explicitly encourage states and localities to include in their written agreements the specific assistance each agency or organization can provide. This limits the benefits of mass care coordination and may put disaster victims at risk.

Public School in Puerto Rico Damaged by Hurricane Maria

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State, territorial, and local grantees of federal disaster preparedness grants are required to regularly submit information on their capabilities to FEMA, and FEMA has provided related guidance and technical assistance. However, the information some grantees provided to FEMA was not specific enough to aid its response in 2017. Moreover, FEMA does not require grantees to specify the organizations providing mass care services in their capabilities assessments. Also, FEMA does not have systematic protocols for providing feedback to grantees to improve their assessments. These limitations hinder FEMA's efforts to strengthen emergency preparedness.

Why GAO Did This Study

Three catastrophic hurricanes affected more than 28 million people living in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria—which all made landfall within four weeks—caused a combined $265 billion in damage, and led to unprecedented demands for food and shelter, according to FEMA. FEMA and the Red Cross are the primary agencies responsible for coordinating mass care under the federal disaster response framework. GAO was asked to review their efforts. This report examines (1) FEMA's and the Red Cross' coordination of mass care in response to the 2017 hurricanes, and (2) FEMA's support and use of assessments of mass care capabilities for the 2017 hurricanes. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, federal frameworks, and written agreements between federal, state, or local governments and various voluntary organizations providing mass care services. GAO also interviewed state, territorial, local, and voluntary organization officials in Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands; as well as officials from Red Cross, FEMA, other relevant federal agencies, and voluntary organizations.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making six recommendations, including that FEMA emphasize the importance of defining roles and responsibilities in its guidance to states and localities, require them to solicit information from key mass care providers in assessing capabilities, and develop protocols for providing feedback to grantees on capability assessments. FEMA agreed with all but one of GAO's recommendations; GAO maintains its recommendations are valid.

For more information, contact Kathryn A. Larin at (202) 512-7215 or larink@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: DHS concurred with this recommendation. The department considers this issue to be resolved because FEMA routinely conducts after-action reports and recently established a working group focused on performance metrics and corrective actions. We agree that these actions are important parts of effectively overseeing and evaluating ESF activities and results. However, while these efforts may address the responsibilities of ESF agencies, they may overlook the overall leadership roles of ESF agencies. To fully implement this recommendation, DHS and FEMA would also need to establish a process for reviewing the structure of ESF leadership roles on a regular basis.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the mass care response to future disasters, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct FEMA to periodically review the current structure of ESF-6 leadership roles andresponsibilities for coordinating mass care. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: DHS and FEMA concur with this recommendation and will take steps to address it, although they didn't specify their plans.

    Recommendation: To better clarify what mass care services voluntary organizations can provide, especially for severe or overlapping hurricanes, FEMA should strengthen its guidance to state and local governments to emphasize the importance of clearly defining roles and responsibilities related to mass care when state and local governments develop written agreements with partner organizations. This could include creating a guidance document or memo that calls attention to the issue and brings together existing resources, such as the Multi-Agency Feeding Plan Template and training materials, in a comprehensive and accessible manner. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: DHS and FEMA agreed with this recommendation. They detailed several approaches they use to connect with local resources, including collaborating with VOAD groups at national, state, and local levels, and indicated that they consider this recommendation already implemented. Given the information gathered from several unaffiliated organizations in areas affected by the 2017 disasters, it is clear there is more work to be done in terms of sharing critical information about mass care needs and resources. Therefore, we believe FEMA should develop additional mechanisms to enhance outreach to organizations that may not be aware of existing approaches such as collaboration with the VOAD groups.

    Recommendation: To ensure assistance reaches all survivors, FEMA should develop mechanisms for the agency and its partners to leverage local community groups, such as conducting regular outreach to communicate and share aggregate information with these groups.(Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: DHS and FEMA did not concur with this recommendation. The agencies said implementing this recommendation would increase the burden on grantees and could put certain communities at a disadvantage because grantees cannot control which partners participate. In addition, DHS and FEMA said that because capabilities assessments are not limited to mass care, such a requirement may have unintended consequences for other partners. FEMA plans to continue working with the mass care community to identify the best solution, including encouraging collaboration at all levels of government. Our recommendation specifies that FEMA should require grantees to solicit information from key mass care partners and to identify these partners in their submission. We recognize that grantees cannot compel partners to participate, but they can, at a minimum, invite such partners to participate in the process. We continue to believe that grantees should be required to make an effort to include mass care providers in developing their mass care capability assessments, as this is vital for developing high quality assessments. FEMA has emphasized the importance of having an active relationship and ongoing communication with key partners before disasters strike. In its Strategic Plan, FEMA states that pre-disaster coordination and communication among partners is critical to improve response and recovery outcomes. Thus, we do not believe it would be an undue burden to reach out to such partners as part of the capability assessment process.

    Recommendation: To ensure more accurate mass care capability assessments, FEMA should require grantees to solicit capabilities information from key mass care service-delivery providers in making capability estimates and identify these providers in their submissions. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: DHS and FEMA concur with this recommendation and will take steps to address it, although they didn't specify their plans.

    Recommendation: To build the emergency preparedness capabilities of grantees, FEMA should develop systematic, documented protocols to determine the conditions under which it will follow up and provide feedback to grantees about mass care capability assessments. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: The Red Cross agreed with this recommendation. The organization noted several ongoing activities to engage such community groups and said it intends to continue expanding outreach, data-sharing, and engagement initiatives.

    Recommendation: To ensure assistance reaches all survivors, Red Cross should develop mechanisms for it and its partners to leverage local community groups, such as conducting regular outreach to communicate and regularly share aggregate information with these groups. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: American Red Cross

 

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