Disaster responders faced unprecedented demands for food and shelter after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria hit within four weeks in 2017, according to FEMA.
FEMA and the Red Cross coordinate with state, local, and volunteer organizations to provide food and shelter after major disasters. We found that the agreements state and local governments made with response organizations didn’t always include information about their capacity to provide services. In some cases food and shelter needs were not met.
We made 6 recommendations aimed at improving the coordination of response activities and the measurement of response capabilities.
Food boxes prepared by the Puerto Rico Department of the Family, containing shelf-stable foods from USDA
An open box with groceries in it
For the Spanish translation of the highlights page for this document, see GAO-19-708.
What GAO Found
Following the three major U.S. hurricanes in 2017, disaster relief efforts of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross (Red Cross) benefitted from locating key partners in the same place. In-person coordination was critical to maintaining communication in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands given the prolonged power outages and damage to public structures (see photo). However, some needs related to mass care—such as shelter, food, and supply distribution—were unmet. For example, local officials in Texas said flooded roads prevented trucks from delivering supplies. Providers encountered challenges in part because state and local agreements with voluntary organizations did not always clearly detail what mass care services could be provided. Additionally, FEMA guidance and training materials do not explicitly encourage states and localities to include in their written agreements the specific assistance each agency or organization can provide. This limits the benefits of mass care coordination and may put disaster victims at risk.
Public School in Puerto Rico Damaged by Hurricane Maria
State, territorial, and local grantees of federal disaster preparedness grants are required to regularly submit information on their capabilities to FEMA, and FEMA has provided related guidance and technical assistance. However, the information some grantees provided to FEMA was not specific enough to aid its response in 2017. Moreover, FEMA does not require grantees to specify the organizations providing mass care services in their capabilities assessments. Also, FEMA does not have systematic protocols for providing feedback to grantees to improve their assessments. These limitations hinder FEMA's efforts to strengthen emergency preparedness.
Why GAO Did This Study
Three catastrophic hurricanes affected more than 28 million people living in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2017. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria—which all made landfall within four weeks—caused a combined $265 billion in damage, and led to unprecedented demands for food and shelter, according to FEMA. FEMA and the Red Cross are the primary agencies responsible for coordinating mass care under the federal disaster response framework. GAO was asked to review their efforts. This report examines (1) FEMA's and the Red Cross' coordination of mass care in response to the 2017 hurricanes, and (2) FEMA's support and use of assessments of mass care capabilities for the 2017 hurricanes. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, federal frameworks, and written agreements between federal, state, or local governments and various voluntary organizations providing mass care services. GAO also interviewed state, territorial, local, and voluntary organization officials in Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands; as well as officials from Red Cross, FEMA, other relevant federal agencies, and voluntary organizations.
GAO is making six recommendations, including that FEMA emphasize the importance of defining roles and responsibilities in its guidance to states and localities, require them to solicit information from key mass care providers in assessing capabilities, and develop protocols for providing feedback to grantees on capability assessments. FEMA agreed with all but one of GAO's recommendations; GAO maintains its recommendations are valid.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Homeland Security||1. To strengthen the mass care response to future disasters, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct FEMA to periodically review the current structure of ESF-6 leadership roles andresponsibilities for coordinating mass care. (Recommendation 1)|
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||2. To better clarify what mass care services voluntary organizations can provide, especially for severe or overlapping hurricanes, FEMA should strengthen its guidance to state and local governments to emphasize the importance of clearly defining roles and responsibilities related to mass care when state and local governments develop written agreements with partner organizations. This could include creating a guidance document or memo that calls attention to the issue and brings together existing resources, such as the Multi-Agency Feeding Plan Template and training materials, in a comprehensive and accessible manner. (Recommendation 2)|
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||3. To ensure assistance reaches all survivors, FEMA should develop mechanisms for the agency and its partners to leverage local community groups, such as conducting regular outreach to communicate and share aggregate information with these groups.(Recommendation 3)|
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||4. To ensure more accurate mass care capability assessments, FEMA should require grantees to solicit capabilities information from key mass care service-delivery providers in making capability estimates and identify these providers in their submissions. (Recommendation 4)|
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||5. To build the emergency preparedness capabilities of grantees, FEMA should develop systematic, documented protocols to determine the conditions under which it will follow up and provide feedback to grantees about mass care capability assessments. (Recommendation 5)|
|American Red Cross||6. To ensure assistance reaches all survivors, Red Cross should develop mechanisms for it and its partners to leverage local community groups, such as conducting regular outreach to communicate and regularly share aggregate information with these groups. (Recommendation 6)|