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Disaster Assistance: FEMA Action Needed to Better Support Individuals Who Are Older or Have Disabilities

GAO-19-318 Published: May 14, 2019. Publicly Released: Jun 05, 2019.
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Fast Facts

How did older people or those with disabilities fare immediately after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria?

Emergency managers and others told us it was sometimes difficult to locate these survivors and provide the help many needed to find food, medicine, and oxygen. Further, FEMA's application for assistance contained disability questions that were easily misinterpreted. This may have led to fewer people reporting their disabilities—making it more difficult to help those in need.

FEMA has begun a new approach to helping people with disabilities. We recommended the agency clarify its application and take other actions.

This disability nonprofit organization facility in San Juan, Puerto Rico, suffered damages in Hurricane Maria.

Outdoor space between two buildings littered with materials from the buildings.

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What GAO Found

A range of officials from entities that partner with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—including states, territories, localities, and nonprofits)—reported challenges providing assistance to individuals who are older or have disabilities following the 2017 hurricanes. For example, officials said that many of these individuals required specialized assistance obtaining food, water, medicine, and oxygen, but aid was sometimes difficult to provide. Officials in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands cited particular difficulties providing this assistance due to damaged roads and communication systems, as well as a lack of documentation of nursing home locations.

Based on GAO's analysis of FEMA data and interviews with FEMA officials and stakeholders, aspects of the process to apply for assistance from FEMA after the 2017 hurricanes were challenging for older individuals and those with disabilities. According to stakeholders and FEMA officials, disability-related questions in the registration materials are confusing and easily misinterpreted. For example, FEMA's registration process does not include an initial question that directly asks individuals if they have a disability or if they would like to request an accommodation for completing the application process (see figure below). While FEMA has made efforts to help registrants interpret the questions, it has not yet changed the language of the questions to improve clarity. As a result, individuals with disabilities may not have requested accommodations or reported having disabilities, which may have hindered FEMA's ability to identify and assist them.

Sequence of Disability-Related Questions in FEMA's Registration Process

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FEMA did not establish objectives before implementing its new approach to disability integration, which includes adding new disability integration staff in the regions and decreasing the number of disability integration advisors deployed to disaster sites. Without documented objectives for the new approach, regional leadership across the nation may implement changes inconsistently. In addition, the new approach shifts the responsibility for directly assisting individuals with disabilities to all FEMA staff. FEMA has taken some initial steps to provide training on the changes; however, it has not established a plan for delivering comprehensive disability-related training to all staff who will be directly interacting with individuals with disabilities. Developing a plan to train all staff would better position FEMA to achieve its intended goals and better equip deployed staff to identify and assist these survivors.

Why GAO Did This Study

Three sequential hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—affected more than 28 million people in 2017, according to FEMA. Hurricane survivors aged 65 and older and those with disabilities faced particular challenges evacuating to safe shelter, accessing medicine, and obtaining recovery assistance. In June 2018, FEMA began implementing a new approach to assist individuals with disabilities.

GAO was asked to review disaster assistance for individuals who are older or have disabilities. This report addresses (1) challenges FEMA partners reported in providing assistance to such individuals, (2) challenges such individuals faced accessing assistance from FEMA and actions FEMA took to address these challenges, and (3) the extent to which FEMA has implemented its new approach to disability integration.

GAO analyzed FEMA data and reviewed relevant federal laws, agency policy, and federal frameworks. GAO also interviewed state, territorial, local, and nonprofit officials in Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands; FEMA officials at headquarters, in regional offices, and deployed to disaster sites; and officials at relevant nonprofit organizations.


GAO is making seven recommendations to FEMA, including that it establish new registration questions, objectives for its new disability integration approach, and a training plan for FEMA staff. The agency concurred with all but one of the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should develop and publicize guidance for partners working to assist individuals who are older or have disabilities for requesting data and working with FEMA staff throughout the data sharing process to obtain Individual Assistance data, as appropriate. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
DHS agreed with this recommendation and has taken several actions to address it. FEMA updated its public-facing data website, developed guidance for data sharing for internal and external partners, and implemented a new data privacy and sharing team. Specifically, FEMA updated OpenFEMA, which provides data in machine-readable formats to the public. FEMA held multiple information sessions with internal and external partners to gather feedback from them to improve services and, once updated, to review data tools with partners. In July 2019, FEMA implemented a new directive on data sharing, which provides FEMA offices and personnel with an integrated sharing solution to ensure they know what data to share and when to share it safely and reliably with internal and external partners. In August 2020, FEMA issued a new directive for data sharing that outlined information needed to more effectively share data with emergency management partners. Specifically, the directive established formal standards for sharing data, including reducing risk associated with data sharing and amount of time needed to finalize data sharing agreements. FEMA officials provided training sessions and presentations to FEMA regional offices, and provided regional staff with resources to share the guide with state partners. In September 2020, FEMA established the Reporting and Analytics Division (RAD) Data Privacy Sharing Team to support FEMA's work to collect, maintain, and share data in transparent and formal ways while protecting communities and individuals; to establish standards; to create agreements; and to inform stakeholders of privacy responsibilities. The RAD Data Privacy and Sharing Team has presented on their efforts throughout FEMA's regional offices.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should implement new registration-intake questions that improve FEMA's ability to identify and address survivors' disability-related needs by, for example, directly soliciting survivors' accommodation requests. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
DHS agreed with this recommendation. The agency plans to continuing improving its registration intake questions related to identifying disaster-related loss to disability-based equipment and services. They will also work to assess the demographic factors that represent the percentage of survivors positively answering registration questions regarding the need for assistive support. Analyzing these data will help FEMA assess whether the recent addition of help text language within registration intake improved the number of survivors who positively answer registration questions regarding the need for assistive support. The analysis will also help them determine if the changes to intake questions are needed to better identify and address survivors' accessibility-related needs. In May 2019, FEMA began using revised registration-intake questions that directly asked registrants if they had a disability. According to FEMA's own analysis, the percentage of registrants that identified as having a disability-related need increased substantially after implementing the revised questions.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should improve communication of registrants' disability-related information across FEMA programs, such as by developing an alert within survivor files that indicates an accommodation request. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
FEMA originally disagreed with this recommendation, noting that it lacks specific funding to augment the legacy data systems that capture and communicate registration information. Also, FEMA began a long-term initiative in April 2017 to improve data management and exchange, and improve overall data quality and standardization. At the time of issuance, The agency said it expects the initiative to include the development of a modern, cloud-based data storage system with a data analytics platform that will allow analysts, decision makers, and stakeholders more ready access to FEMA data. In September 2021 FEMA updated its registrant case file system to improve communication of registrants' disability-related information across FEMA programs. These improvements included creating "flags" in registrants' files that enable helpline agents and case processors to easily identify reported accommodation needs. FEMA also revised its internal guidance to inform staff on how to identify when disability-related information has been reported and where to locate further guidance to use the information appropriately.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should establish and disseminate a set of objectives for FEMA's new disability integration approach. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
DHS agreed with this recommendation and, in the year following the issuance of GAO's report, took a number of actions to address it. Specifically, FEMA's Office of Disability Integration and Coordination (ODIC) published its 2019-2022 Strategic Plan in May 2019, which established strategic objectives to frame its approach to disability integration. In November 2019, ODIC published a Continuous Improvement Action Plan that laid out findings indicating nine areas for improvement, based on findings from surveys of key stakeholders about the new disability integration model. To address these areas for improvement, the plan included 55 action items that align with ODIC's Strategic Plan. In February 2020, ODIC distributed the action plan to all of FEMA's Regional Administrators, highlighting the plan's objectives for training, information sharing, and communication intended to improve the Disability Integration cadre's interactions with field leadership and other staff. Finally, in January 2020, ODIC updated performance goals for all deployable Disability Integration cadre members. The new performance goals were aligned with ODIC's Strategic Plan and the new disability integration approach, and are intended to standardize program delivery and serve as a measure of success for the new approach.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should communicate to Regional Administrators and Regional Disability Integration Specialists a written plan for implementing its new disability integration staffing approach, consistent with the objectives established for disability integration. Such a plan should include an implementation timeline and details on staff responsibilities, which regions could use to evaluate staff performance. (Recommendation 5)
Closed – Implemented
DHS agreed with and implemented this recommendation. FEMA's Office of Disability Integration and Coordination Director issued a memo on February 1, 2023, that outlines FEMA's new approach to disability integration. This approach replaces the approach that was the subject of our review, which focused on standardization of the Regional Disability Integration Specialist (RDIS) role. The Director briefed FEMA senior leaders including the Regional Administrators and Federal Coordinating Officers on the contents of the memo, as well as the RDISs. The memo outlines the scope and scale of the disability integration mission, including the roles of the RDIS and the headquarters staff in preparing for, during and after a disaster as it relates to supporting people with disabilities. For example, FEMA will use a risk profile that accounts for 14 variables that FEMA identified as contributing to inequities before, during, and after a disaster. Based on this risk profile for specific locations as a disaster is approaching, multiple stakeholders will engage in planning for the needs of individuals with disabilities that will be affected. In addition the memo lays out 9 keys areas that include expectations for FEMA staff around disability integration, such as training and fostering collaboration with local communities. The plan indicates that it aligns with FEMA's current Strategic Plan and the FEMA Administrator's CY 2023 Annual Planning Guidance.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should develop a plan for delivering training to FEMA staff that promotes competency in disability awareness. The plan should include milestones and performance measures, and outline how performance will be monitored. (Recommendation 6)
Closed – Implemented
FEMA agreed with and implemented this recommendation. As of March 2023, FEMA's Office of Disability Integration and Coordination delivered "Disability Equity and Inclusion" training to 4,359 FEMA employees and DHS Surge Capacity Force (SCF) members between January 2021 and November 2022. FEMA reported that the training materials are evaluated annually based on participant feedback; legal, regulatory, and policy updates; and emerging best practices from the previous disaster season. The training is marketed via "FEMA Weekly," FEMA's all-hands email communication tool, no less than twice each year for on-demand presentation to FEMA program offices, FEMA cadres, and FEMA Joint Field Offices. In addition, FEMA's flagship training on incorporating disability equity and people with access and functional needs into emergency planning- "Including People with Disabilities and Others with Access and Functional Needs in Disaster Operations" - is mandatory for all FEMA personnel. This is an on-demand online course also available to all state, local, and volunteer emergency managers and stakeholders.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should develop a timeline for completing the development of new disability-related training the agency can offer to its partners that incorporates the needs of individuals with disabilities into disaster preparedness, response, and recovery operations. (Recommendation 7)
Closed – Implemented
DHS agreed with this recommendation. The agency reported that it developed a set of courses of action to update "Integrating Access and Functional Needs into Emergency Planning." In June 2019 FEMA issued a Request for Quote to three vendor contractors for redesigning the training course "Integrating People with Disabilities into Emergency Planning (E/L 0197)." Officials from the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination (ODIC) worked with officials from FEMA's training division to complete a Uniform Training Needs Assessment (UTNA), and developed a Statement of Work that details requirements consistent with the findings of the UTNA. ODIC officials estimate that the period of work will be approximately one year, and expect to field the course starting in August 2020.

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Disaster reliefDisastersElderly personsEmergency managementEmployee trainingHuman capital managementHurricanesPeople with disabilitiesPhysical disabilitiesPublic officialsPublic health emergencies