Disaster Management:

Recent Disasters Demonstrate the Need to Improve the Nation's Response Strategy

T-RCED-93-20: Published: May 18, 1993. Publicly Released: May 18, 1993.

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GAO discussed the nation's response to disasters. GAO noted that: (1) the federal response plan is inadequate for dealing with catastrophic disasters, since it lacks provisions for a comprehensive assessment of damages and the corresponding needs of disaster victims; (2) the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needs to improve the national response system by establishing a FEMA disaster unit to improve decisionmaking on providing help, increasing reliance on the Department of Defense (DOD) to provide mass care, ensuring presidential involvement and leadership before and after catastrophic disasters, and enhancing state and local governments' preparedness and response capabilities; (3) FEMA must reorganize to overcome institutional and cultural barriers that prevent effective cooperation among its divisions; (4) other federal agencies, such as the Forest Service, could provide back up services to FEMA and DOD; and (5) currently, other federal agencies do not have authorization to make disaster preparations and are reluctant to make advance preparations without assurance of reimbursement from FEMA.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA has completed a major reorganization making many more of its resources available for disaster activities in general, including needs determinations. A Situation Assessment Branch in FEMA headquarters, and "strike teams" for rapid deployment to disaster areas have also been established to perform the types of tasks included in GAO's recommendations.

    Recommendation: The federal government needs to develop a catastrophic disaster response capability. Accordingly, FEMA should establish a disaster unit headquartered in FEMA. This unit would be comprised 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 participants can meet those needs. 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

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The White House has not responded to the recommendation.

    Recommendation: 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


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