The 2017 disaster season was unlike anything the U.S. had experienced: 15% of the population was affected by 3 back-to-back hurricanes and catastrophic wildfires.
The law requires, where practical, that federal agencies give preference to local businesses in disaster areas for the contracts used to clean up and rebuild. The idea is to jumpstart the local economy.
Among other things, we reviewed contracts 4 agencies used to respond the disasters. We found officials didn't always know how they should give local businesses preference.
We made 10 recommendations, including that agencies clarify rules that give preference to local businesses.
Canal debris in the Florida Keys following Hurricane Irma
Marine debris in a canal, Florida Keys
What GAO Found
Following hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and the 2017 California wildfires, federal agencies obligated at least $5 billion in post-disaster contracts—which are awarded after disasters hit— to support disaster response and recovery efforts. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) comprised over three-quarters of reported post-disaster contract obligations as of June 30, 2018 (see figure).
Known Post-Disaster Contract Obligations in Response to the 2017 Disasters, in Fiscal Year 2018 Dollars, as of June 30, 2018
However, the full extent of post-disaster contracting related to the 2017 disasters is unknown due to the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) inconsistent implementation of the criteria for closing a national interest action (NIA) code. This code allows agencies to track data on contract actions related to national emergencies, providing government-wide insight into response and recovery efforts. DHS closed the codes for Harvey and Irma on June 30, 2018, less than a year after those hurricanes hit. In contrast, the codes for prior hurricanes were open for at least five years, with Katrina remaining open for 13 years.
Based on a review of 23 contract files from FEMA, USACE, the Defense Logistics Agency, and the Coast Guard, GAO identified challenges in the planning of selected contracts. For example, GAO found USACE officials were not consistently aware of the regulation that defines “local area.” GAO also found that contracting officers at FEMA, USACE, and the Coast Guard did not consistently write justifications for awards to non-local vendors outside the disaster area, as required. FEMA developed guidance to address this, but the Coast Guard and USACE have not issued guidance or tools to address this requirement. Without addressing planning challenges, agencies may miss opportunities to award contracts to local businesses in the disaster area to the extent feasible and practicable, which could help jump-start the local economy.
Why GAO Did This Study
Federal contracts play a key role in timely response and recovery efforts following disasters. While federal agencies, such as FEMA and USACE, may have advance contracts in place for obtaining goods and services following disasters, agencies may also award post-disaster contracts.
GAO was asked to review the federal government's response to three major hurricanes in 2017, as well as the 2017 California wildfires. This report addresses, among other objectives, the extent to which (1) federal agencies obligated funds on post-disaster contracts in response to the these events, and (2) selected agencies experienced challenges in the planning of selected contracts.
GAO analyzed data from the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation; selected a non-generalizable sample of 23 post-disaster contracts based on factors such as if the contract was set aside for award to a local contractor; reviewed federal regulations and agency guidance; and interviewed agency officials.
GAO is making 10 recommendations, including that DHS reopen NIA codes for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma; USACE provide guidance on the local area definition; and the Coast Guard and USACE provide guidance to ensure contracting requirements for the use of non-local vendors are met. Agencies concurred with 9 recommendations. DHS did not agree that NIA codes should be reopened. GAO continues to believe DHS should do so, to the extent practicable, as discussed in the report.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|General Services Administration||The Administrator of the General Services Administration, in coordination with the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security, should jointly revisit and assess the extent to which the criteria in the 2018 NIA code Memorandum of Agreement, including criteria for closing NIA codes, meet long-term visibility needs for high visibility events and account for the needs of users, such as FEMA, other agencies, and the Congress. At a minimum, the agreement should include criteria that take into account the roles of the federal agencies involved in response and recovery and provide a process that ensures consistent consideration and implementation of the criteria. (Recommendation 1)|
|Department of Homeland Security||Until the NIA code Memorandum of Agreement between the General Services Administration and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security is revised, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in coordination with the Department of Defense and the General Services Administration, keep the existing NIA code for Hurricane Maria open, reopen the other NIA codes established for 2017 and 2018 hurricanes (Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Florence, and Michael), and request that agencies retroactively enter NIA codes for contract actions for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma made after June 30, 2018, for Hurricane Florence made after March 15, 2019, and for Hurricane Michael made after April 12, 2019 into FPDS-NG to adequately capture contract obligations, to the extent practicable. (Recommendation 2)|
|Department of the Army||The Secretary of the Army should direct the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide guidance or related training to ensure contracting officers are aware of the regulatory definition of "local area". (Recommendation 3)|
|Office of Federal Procurement Policy||The Administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy should provide additional clarification on how contracting officers should determine whether offerors reside or primarily do business in a disaster area for the purposes of a local area set-aside contract. (Recommendation 4)|
|United States Coast Guard||The Commandant of the Coast Guard should provide guidance and tools for contracting officials to use to ensure requirements concerning contracting with local vendors, including justification requirements for the use of non-local vendors, are consistently met. (Recommendation 5)|
|Department of the Army||The Secretary of the Army should direct the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide guidance and tools for contracting officials to use to ensure requirements concerning contracting with local vendors, including justification requirements for the use of non-local vendors, are consistently met. (Recommendation 6)|
|Department of the Army||The Secretary of the Army should direct the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to establish a formal process to solicit input from officials directly involved in the agency's response and recovery following a disaster and to share that input with the Emergency Support Function Leadership Group. (Recommendation 7)|
|United States Coast Guard||The Commandant of the Coast Guard should establish a formal process to solicit input from officials directly involved in the agency's response and recovery following a disaster and to share that input with the Emergency Support Function Leadership Group. (Recommendation 8)|
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||The FEMA Administrator should take the lead to work together with the Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revise the mission assignment policy and related guidance to better incorporate consideration of contracting needs, such as demobilization, and to ensure clear communication of coordination responsibilities related to contracting. (Recommendation 9)|
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||The FEMA Administrator should assess its workforce needs—including staffing levels, mission needs, and skill gaps—for contracting staff, to include regional offices and DART; and develop a plan, including timelines, to address any gaps. (Recommendation 10)|