Disaster Assistance:

Information on Declarations for Urban and Rural Areas

RCED-95-242: Published: Sep 14, 1995. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 1995.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the federal disaster declaration process, focusing on: (1) whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration's (SBA) disaster declaration policies differ for rural and urban areas; (2) the length of time taken to respond to disaster declaration requests for rural and urban areas; (3) the proportion of requests granted for rural areas, as compared with the corresponding proportion for urban areas; and (4) factors that influence disaster declaration processing time.

GAO found that: (1) neither FEMA's nor SBA's disaster declaration policies differ with respect to whether the affected area is rural or urban; (2) both agencies use criteria such as measures of damage to homes, businesses, and public facilities to assess requests for disaster declarations and to help determine whether or not to grant assistance; (3) neither agency's criteria include a measure of population density; (4) for requests received in calendar 1993 and 1994, the time that elapsed between the governors' requests and the declaration decisions by the President or SBA was longer for rural and very rural counties than for urban or very urban counties; (5) for example, the median processing time for requests to FEMA for very rural counties was 11 days, and for very urban counties, it was 7 days; (6) similarly, the time that elapsed between the occurrence of a "disaster incident" and the governor's request for a disaster declaration was longest for very rural counties and shortest for very urban counties (medians of 10 days and 4 days, respectively, for requests made to the President); (7) in disasters declared by the President, FEMA made a greater proportion of very rural counties (93 percent) eligible for assistance than any other type of county; (8) in contrast, SBA declared a greater proportion of urban and very urban counties (58 percent and 70 percent, respectively) eligible for assistance than rural and very rural counties; (9) in the cases GAO reviewed, various factors affected the time required for the declaration process; one factor affecting the length of time between a disaster incident and a gubernatorial request for a declaration was how quickly damage assessments could be made; and (10) among the factors that affected the length of time between a gubernatorial request and a declaration decision was the extent to which the damage was documented in the governor's request.

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