Disaster Assistance:

Response to West Virginia's November 1985 Flood Shows Need for Improvements

RCED-88-5: Published: Feb 4, 1988. Publicly Released: Mar 7, 1988.

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John M. Ols, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the November 1985 West Virginia flood, focusing on: (1) state and local disaster planning and preparedness; (2) the effectiveness of existing warning systems and planned improvements; (3) the federal government's responsiveness to victims' needs; and (4) the type and amount of assistance the government provided to flood victims.

GAO found that, of West Virginia's 55 counties: (1) less than half participated in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Emergency Management Assistance (EMA) Program; (2) some may withdraw from EMA because of program changes; and (3) all had poor emergency plans, according to FEMA guidelines. GAO also found that: (1) primary county flood warning systems consisted of civil defense sirens and loudspeakers and media weather warnings; (2) some flood victims did not receive or recognize warnings; and (3) the National Weather Service's (NWS) Integrated Flood Observing and Warning System (IFLOWS) was ineffective for those counties unable to maintain it. In addition, GAO found that: (1) although the Small Business Administration was revising its procedures to reduce loan processing time, federal agencies generally took too long to complete and approve applications for initial and supplemental public assistance and frequently underestimated amounts necessary for initial assistance; (2) West Virginia averaged 26 days to pay recipients; (3) the Soil Conservation Service and the Army Corps of Engineers began cleanup work almost immediately after the flood, but without the required request from FEMA; (4) FEMA spent about $27 million in individual assistance programs; (5) family grant program limits did not meet the basic needs of about a third of the flood victims; (6) FEMA issued some supplemental assistance payments without reinspecting claimed damage; and (7) FEMA instructed the state to build 647 mobile home foundations, of which only half were used.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA has concluded, based on a review of past experience, that regional planning is much less preferable to county-by-county planning. FEMA, however, is willing to assist any group, including regional bodies, that seek disaster planning assistance.

    Recommendation: FEMA should, in conjunction with the states, determine whether intrastate regional emergency operations planning is feasible and potentially more cost-effective than the current method of having each county develop its own plan.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NWS has provided new IFLOWS-related equipment that requires less maintenance to the counties. NWS has provided the state with funds to train county staff in IFLOWS equipment maintenance. The West Virginia legislature was asked to support county maintenance costs but has not done so to date.

    Recommendation: NWS should develop alternatives for maintaining IFLOWS equipment if some counties are unable to fund maintenance costs. Alternatives could include cost sharing by NWS, the state, or the county.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: National Weather Service

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA issued final regulations on January 23, 1990, that established time standards for the public assistance application process. These include 45 days for grant approval or rejection after the damage inspection is completed, 6 months for completing emergency public assistance projects, and 18 months for completing permanent public assistance projects. Deadlines can be extended, if justified.

    Recommendation: The Director, FEMA, should pursue development of standards for how long the public assistance application process should take to better enable FEMA to identify opportunities to expedite the process.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency


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