Disaster Management:

Improving the Nation's Response to Catastrophic Disasters

RCED-93-186: Published: Jul 23, 1993. Publicly Released: Jul 23, 1993.

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Pursuant to congressional requests, GAO examined the adequacy of the federal strategy for responding to catastrophic disasters and solutions for improving it.

GAO found that: (1) the Federal Response Plan lacks a provision for a comprehensive assessment of damages and the needs of disaster victims; (2) the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needs a disaster unit whose primary mission is planning for and responding to catastrophic disasters; (3) the Red Cross and its large network of volunteers is suited to provide mass care and coordinate the efforts of other federal agencies; (4) the Department of Defense (DOD) is the only organization capable of providing, transporting, and distributing sufficient quantities of items needed in the most severe catastrophic disasters; (5) federal response time could be reduced by encouraging agencies to do as much advance preparation as possible prior to disaster declaration; (6) FEMA needs to use its existing resources to better prepare state and local governments for catastrophic disaster response; and (7) FEMA provides state and local governments with approximately $100 million annually in civil defense grants.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Post-Katrina Act section 681 (Stafford Act Section 402 and 502), General Federal Assistance section amends the Stafford Act to authorize the President to provide accelerated federal assistance in the absence of a specific request where necessary to save lives, prevent human suffering, or mitigate severe damage in a major disaster or emergency. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Matter: The Congress may wish to consider giving FEMA and other federal agencies explicit authority to take actions to prepare for catastrophic disasters when there is warning.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Title 10 United States Code, section 12304 (c)(1) has been amended twice--in 2006 and in 2008. However, these amendments did not respond to our Matter for Congressional Consideration and the latest revision, which occurred in 2008, returned this portion of the code to the language that was in place prior to the 2006 revision. As a result, this recommendation is closed as not implemented.

    Matter: The Congress may wish to consider removing statutory restrictions on DOD'S authority to activate Reserve units for catastrophic disaster relief.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Post-Katrina Act section 611 (Homeland Security Act, section 509), requires the Secretary of Homeland Security, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator, to provide a clear chain of command that accounts for the roles of the FEMA Administrator, the Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO), and the Principal Federal Official (PFO), as amended by the Post-Katrina Act. For Stafford Act incidents (i.e., presidentially-declared emergencies or major disasters), upon the recommendation of the FEMA Administrator and the Secretary of Homeland Security, the President appoints an FCO. The FCO has responsibility for administering Stafford Act authorities, including the commitment of FEMA resources and the issuance of mission assignments to other federal departments or agencies. Within the Unified Coordination Group at the Joint Field Office, the FCO is the primary federal official responsible for coordinating, integrating, and synchronizing federal response activities. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure vital Presidential leadership for catastrophic disasters, the President should designate a senior official in the White House to oversee federal preparedness for and responses to catastrophic disasters. This official should not only monitor the initial federal response to catastrophic disasters but also have ongoing responsibility for oversight of FEMA and other federal agencies' efforts to plan, prepare for, and respond to such disasters.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In accordance with the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) developed Incident Management Assistance Teams (IMAT), a next generation of rapidly deployable interagency national and regional emergency response "strike" teams. These new teams will eventually replace existing Emergency Response Teams (ERT) at the national and regional level and the Federal Incident Response Support Teams (FIRST), and are designed to provide a forward Federal presence to better manage and coordinate the national response to catastrophic incidents. FEMA teams and assets include: 1) Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT)-Dedicated teams consisting of 26 members (National) and 15 members (Regional) that are rapidly deployable to an incident or incident-threatened venue to provide leadership in identification and provision of Federal assistance and support; coordinate and integrate inter-jurisdictional response; and possess the capability to provide initial situational awareness for decision-makers. IMATs can be deployed within two hours/on scene within 12 hours to support the local incident commander in establishing unified command; 2) Emergency Response Teams-National (ERT-N) - National-level Teams consisting of approximately 32 individuals from FEMA Headquarters and the Regions that respond to significant disaster incidents to help coordinate disaster response activities and deployment of national response assets and resources; and 3) ERT-Advanced (ERT-A) - Teams in each FEMA Region, made up of approximately 25 individuals that can be deployed in the early phases of an incident to work directly with States to assess the disaster impact, gain situational awareness, help coordinate response, and respond to specific State requests for assistance.

    Recommendation: The federal government needs to develop a capability to respond to catastrophic disasters. Accordingly, FEMA should establish a disaster unit headquartered in FEMA. This unit would be composed of a core of FEMA staff and would be augmented by resources and staff from other key federal agencies. The unit would-using analyses of state and local governments' capability and preparedness to respond to catastrophic disasters-predict, plan for, and assess the damage resulting from catastrophic disasters. The unit would also translate its damage assessments into estimates of immediate response needs, including the extent to which FEMA and the other federal agencies can meet those needs. It also would provide up-to-date information to the White House so that the President's designated official would be able to effectively oversee the federal response. On the basis of its assessments and needs determinations, the unit would make concrete recommendations to the governor of the affected state regarding the amount, type, and cost of federal assistance that should be sought. The disaster unit should direct any needed federal relief effort.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) finalized a catalogue of prescripted mission assignments (PSMA) in June 2008. There are 223 PSMAs in the catalogue, and they are listed by Emergency Support Function employed under the National Response Framework. According to FEMA officials in the Disaster Operations Directorate, the PSMA catalogue will be continually updated based on experiences and lessons learned from disasters and simulation exercises. The Department of Defense (DOD) plays a key role supporting FEMA in overall planning, coordinating, and integrating Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA) with local, state, and federal agencies. DSCA is DOD's support, provided by its federal military forces, DOD civilians, contract personnel, and DOD components, in response to requests for assistance. In addition, the American Red Cross has hired and deployed mass care planners to FEMA headquarters, regions and the Pacific and Caribbean Area Offices. This staff was hired under a two-year contract between FEMA and the Red Cross to provide mass care experts in support of catastrophic and regional response planning and operations. This recommendations is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: The federal government needs to develop a capability to respond to catastrophic disasters. Accordingly, FEMA should improve its catastrophic disaster response capability by using existing authority to aggressively respond to catastrophic disasters, assessing the extent of damage, and then advising state and local officials of identified needs and the federal resources available to address them, as well as the extent to which DOD resources will be needed to supplement those of the Red Cross in meeting mass care needs.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress passed the Post-Katrina Act in October 2006. The act strengthened the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) role within the Department of Homeland Security and defined FEMA's primary mission as to reduce the loss of life and property and protect the Nation from all hazards, including natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters, by leading and supporting the nation in a risk-based, comprehensive emergency management system of preparedness, protection, response, recovery, and mitigation. The act required FEMA to establish a national preparedness system for ensuring that the nation has the ability to deal with all hazards, including those incidents with catastrophic consequences. Among other things, the act directs FEMA to provide funding, training, exercises, technical assistance, planning, and other assistance to build tribal, local, state, regional, and national capabilities (including communications capabilities) necessary to respond to any type of disaster. We reported in April 2009 that FEMA has developed guidance and other tools to assist in designing and implementing the national exercise program and has taken initial actions to collect information on state preparedness capabilities and develop a comprehensive assessment system for assessing capabilities at all levels of government. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: The federal government needs to develop a capability to respond to catastrophic disasters. Accordingly, FEMA should enhance the capacity of state and local governments to respond to catastrophic disasters by (1) continuing to give them increased flexibility to match grant funding with individual response needs, (2) upgrading training and exercises specifically geared towards catastrophic disaster response, and (3) assessing each state's preparedness for catastrophic disaster response.

    Agency Affected: Federal Emergency Management Agency


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