Disaster Assistance:

Additional Actions Needed to Strengthen FEMA's Individuals and Households Program

GAO-20-503: Published: Sep 30, 2020. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 2020.

Multimedia:

  • PODCAST: Actions Needed to Help Disaster Survivors Access FEMA Assistance Program

    Heavy hurricanes seasons in 2017 and 2018, along with devastating wildfires in California, affected more than 47 million people in the United States--about 15 percent of the national population. In response to disaster events like these, the Federal Emergency Management Agency can provide financial assistance for home repairs, child care and transportation, as well as services to help survivors during recovery periods. However, survivors face challenges in accessing this assistance, and--with larger-scale disasters--FEMA faces challenges in giving assistance. Today we talk with GAO's Chris Currie, an expert on disaster assistance and a director in our Homeland Security and Justice Team.

    View the transcript

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Chris Currie
(404) 679-1875
CurrieC@gao.gov

 

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

The hurricanes and fires of 2017 and 2018 affected more than 47 million people in the U.S. From 2016-18, survivors received about $6 billion and 12,805 temporary housing units from FEMA's Individuals and Households Program. Most applicants were uninsured, and a majority had incomes under $50,000.

About 2.4 million people (of the 4.4 million referred to the program) were ineligible. Common reasons for denial included insufficient damage and failure to provide supporting evidence.

FEMA could better explain its program information and eligibility decisions to applicants. Improving FEMA's decision letter is one of our 14 recommendations.

Damage to a North Carolina home as a result of Hurricane Florence in 2018.

photo of a brick house with roof, deck, and tree damage

Multimedia:

  • PODCAST: Actions Needed to Help Disaster Survivors Access FEMA Assistance Program

    Heavy hurricanes seasons in 2017 and 2018, along with devastating wildfires in California, affected more than 47 million people in the United States--about 15 percent of the national population. In response to disaster events like these, the Federal Emergency Management Agency can provide financial assistance for home repairs, child care and transportation, as well as services to help survivors during recovery periods. However, survivors face challenges in accessing this assistance, and--with larger-scale disasters--FEMA faces challenges in giving assistance. Today we talk with GAO's Chris Currie, an expert on disaster assistance and a director in our Homeland Security and Justice Team.

    View the transcript

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Chris Currie
(404) 679-1875
CurrieC@gao.gov

 

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

What GAO Found

From 2016 through 2018, 5.6 million people applied for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and 4.4 million were referred to the Individuals and Households Program (IHP) for assistance. For eligible survivors, FEMA's IHP can offer financial assistance—including money for personal property losses and repair of certain home damages. The IHP may also provide rental assistance or direct housing assistance, such as trailers, when justified by the lack of available housing resources.

Individuals and Households Program (IHP) Assistance Awarded to Almost 2 Million Survivors from 2016 through 2018

Type of Assistance

Amount of Assistance

Total Financial Assistance

$5.98 billion

Total Temporary Housing Assistance

12,805 housing units

Source: GAO analysis of IHP applicant data, as of February 24, 2020. | GAO-20-503

Of the 4.4 million referred to IHP, FEMA found almost 2 million eligible. On average, FEMA awarded about $4,200 to homeowners and $1,700 to renters during 2016 through 2018. FEMA determined roughly 1.7 million ineligible for IHP assistance, and the most common reasons for ineligibility were insufficient damage, failure to submit evidence to support disaster loses, and failure to make contact with the FEMA inspector. The remaining applicants either withdrew from IHP or received no determination due to missing insurance information. Program outcomes also varied across demographic groups, such as age and income.

GAO found that survivors faced numerous challenges obtaining aid and understanding the IHP, including the following:

  • FEMA requires that certain survivors first be denied a Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loan before receiving certain types of IHP assistance. FEMA, state, territory, and local officials said that survivors did not understand and were frustrated by this requirement. GAO found that FEMA did not fully explain the requirement to survivors and its process for the requirement may have prevented many survivors from being considered for certain types of assistance, including low-income applicants who are less likely to qualify for an SBA loan. By fully communicating the requirement and working with SBA to identify options to simplify and streamline this step of the IHP process, FEMA could help ensure that survivors receive all assistance for which they are eligible.
  • Opportunities also exist to improve survivors' understanding of FEMA's eligibility and award determinations for the IHP, for example, that an ineligible determination is not always final, but may mean FEMA needs more information to decide the award. By enhancing the clarity of its determinations and providing more information to survivors about their award, the agency could improve survivors' understanding of the IHP, better manage their expectations, build trust, and improve transparency.

Disaster Survivors Sought Assistance from the Individuals and Households Program (IHP) to Recover from Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Florida

Individuals and Households Program (IHP) Assistance Awarded to Almost 2 Million Survivors from 2016 through 2018

Further, GAO found that since 2016, FEMA faced challenges implementing the IHP through its call center and field workforce, as well as coordinating with state and local officials, as noted below:

  • Regarding workforce management, GAO found that FEMA has faced challenges managing its call center and field staff. Specific to their call center workforce—who help survivors apply for IHP and process assistance—challenges using program guidance, low morale, and inadequate training following the catastrophic 2017 hurricane season affected their work supporting disaster survivors. For example, while FEMA issues standard operating procedure updates for processing IHP applications, staff we spoke to at all four call centers noted that they could not maintain awareness of IHP guidance because of its large volume and frequent changes, which made it difficult for staff to appropriately address survivor needs. Identifying ways to improve the accessibility and usability of program guidance would help staff better assist survivors. Further, FEMA staff at disaster recovery centers (DRC) lacked some skills and capabilities needed to support survivors, such as knowledge to provide accurate guidance about required documents. By identifying and implementing strategies, such as on-the-job training, to ensure staff at its DRCs have the needed capabilities, FEMA could improve support and streamline the survivor experience.
  • Regarding coordination, GAO found that state and local officials generally had trouble understanding the IHP. For example, these officials said that FEMA did not provide sufficient training, support, and guidance that was needed in order for them to be able to effectively work with FEMA to facilitate IHP assistance. Further, local officials expressed challenges coordinating with FEMA regarding temporary housing units, such as recreational vehicles. By providing more information on the IHP to local officials, and implementing best practices for information-sharing with recovery partners, FEMA could help ensure that state and local recovery partners are better able to help survivors navigate the IHP and effectively deliver temporary housing units to survivors.

Lastly, FEMA has planned or implemented multiple efforts to improve assistance to survivors since 2017, including a redesign of the Individual Assistance Program, which includes the IHP. However, GAO found that FEMA did not complete activities that are critical to the success of a process improvement effort, according to GAO's Business Process Reengineering Assessment Guide . Specifically, the agency did not fully assess customer and stakeholder needs and performance gaps in the program, or set improvement goals and priorities for the redesign. By completing these process improvement activities, FEMA will be able to further refine the redesigned Individual Assistance Program, and more effectively direct and focus its implementation efforts.

Why GAO Did This Study

During the 2017 and 2018 disaster seasons, several sequential, large-scale disasters created an unprecedented demand for federal disaster assistance. GAO was asked to review issues related to the federal response and recovery to the 2017 disaster season and, specifically, the effectiveness of the IHP.

This report addresses (1) IHP outcomes and challenges faced by survivors from 2016 through 2018; (2) challenges FEMA faced implementing the IHP during the same period; and (3) FEMA efforts to assess and improve the IHP, among other things. To answer these objectives, GAO analyzed data from all IHP applicants from 2016 through 2018 and reviewed relevant documentation and policies. GAO also interviewed FEMA, state, territory, local, and nonprofit officials; met with survivors; and visited locations affected by hurricanes in 2017 and 2018 selected to include multiple FEMA regions and other characteristics.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making 14 recommendations, and DHS concurred.

To address challenges faced by survivors, GAO recommends improving the communication of the SBA loan requirement, identifying ways to simplify the application process, improve the IHP award determination letters, and provide more information to survivors about their award.

To address challenges FEMA faced implementing the IHP, GAO recommends improving the communication of guidance changes, ensure employee engagement to raise morale, and improve training among call center staff. GAO also recommends strategies to ensure DRC staff have the skills to support survivors. GAO also recommends improving IHP information provided to state, local, tribal, and territorial recovery partners; and identifying and implementing best practices for information sharing and coordination on the delivery of temporary transportable housing.

To further FEMA efforts to assess and improve the IHP, GAO recommends corrections to the methodology used to survey survivors; following key process improvement activities—including engaging stakeholders, assessing performance gaps, and prioritization of process improvement—during program redesign activities; and establishing time frames for strategic planning and implementation of program improvement efforts.

For more information, contact Chris Currie at (404) 679-1875 or CurrieC@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should improve the completeness and consistency of its communication of the requirement to apply for an SBA disaster loan prior to being considered for SBA-dependent other needs assistance. (Recommendation 1)

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

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should assess the extent to which its process for determining an applicant's eligibility for SBA-dependent other needs assistance limits or prevents survivors' access to IHP assistance, and work with SBA to identify options to simplify and streamline the disaster assistance application process for survivors. (Recommendation 2)

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

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should improve the IHP award determination letters by using federal guidance and best practices for communicating with the public to ensure that applicants understand that an "ineligible" determination does not mean they cannot continue to pursue assistance. (Recommendation 3)

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

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should identify and implement strategies to provide additional information to applicants about how FEMA determined their eligibility for assistance and the amount of assistance to award. (Recommendation 4)

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

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should evaluate the method for communicating changes in IHP standard operating procedures (SOP) to identify ways to improve their accessibility and usability by National Processing Service Center (NPSC) staff. (Recommendation 5)

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

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should use desirable characteristics of employee engagement—including performance feedback, career development, communication, and attention to work-life balance—while completing planned activities for improving morale among call center staff. (Recommendation 6)

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

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should use desirable characteristics of employee engagement—including performance feedback, career development, communication, and attention to work-life balance—when assessing NPSC staff satisfaction scores and identifying additional steps to strengthen employee morale. (Recommendation 7)

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

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should assess the effectiveness of the IHP training and support for NPSC staff during surge events and implement any necessary changes. (Recommendation 8)

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

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should identify and implement strategies to help ensure staff deployed to Disaster Recovery Centers (DRC) have the needed skills and capabilities to provide support and consistent service to survivors. (Recommendation 9)

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

  10. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should identify and implement strategies to provide readily accessible information and resources, such as guidance and training, about the Individuals and Households Program to state, local, tribal, and territorial officials. (Recommendation 10)

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

  11. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should identify and implement best practices for information sharing and coordinating with local officials, and other recovery partners, on the delivery of Transportable Temporary Housing Units in the interim while FEMA completes system improvements. (Recommendation 11)

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

  12. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should correct and refine the methodology used to survey survivor experiences with the IHP by (1) weighting the survey data to reflect the stratification of its survey design, (2) adjusting the base sampling weights for survey nonresponse within each stratum, and (3) calculating the sampling error for the survey data after adjusting the base sampling weights for nonresponse. (Recommendation 12)

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

  13. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should complete the following key process improvement activities as part of its effort to redesign the Individual Assistance Program: (1) engage with additional program customers and stakeholders to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of their needs; (2) assess performance gaps between current processes and customer and stakeholder needs, and develop measurable and achievable improvement goals to address any identified performance gaps; and (3) prioritize the processes that need improvement based on documented selection criteria. (Recommendation 13)

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

  14. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The FEMA Administrator should establish time frames for finalizing the Individual Assistance Division's draft strategic plan and developing implementation plans that integrate its IHP improvement efforts. (Recommendation 14)

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

 

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