Fast Facts

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

An open box with groceries in it

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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

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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.

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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

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security 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)
Closed - Implemented
DHS concurred with this recommendation. FEMA established a working group in 2018 that reports on performance metrics and corrective actions and improvement plans. As part of that mission, they are establishing a reporting system for emergency support function (ESF) coordinators to provide monthly updates on implementing corrective actions and validating improvements through exercises. We believe that these actions are important parts of effectively overseeing and evaluating ESF activities and results. To address the overall leadership roles of ESF agencies, in March-June 2019, FEMA led seminars to assess ESF-#6 program updates, lessons learned, and identify any changes needed to the ESF-#6 Annex. According to FEMA, no significant Annex-wide gaps or shortfalls emerged from the discussions, and the leadership structure was maintained in the October 2019 update to the National Response Framework (NRF). In addition, the 2019 update to the NRF states that ESF coordinators, including ESF-6 coordinator DHS/FEMA, are responsible for overseeing the preparedness activities for a particular ESF and ensuring the ESF is engaged in appropriate planning activities.
Federal Emergency Management Agency 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)
DHS and FEMA concurred with this recommendation. In their June 2020 update, FEMA said it would address this recommendation through the Individual Assistance Mass Care unit within the Office of Response and Recovery. The Individual Assistance Mass Care unit will conduct a strategic review of existing guidance and protocols related to the development of written agreements. FEMA will coordinate the review with state, local, territorial, and tribal governments (SLTT), regional staff, and other key stakeholders, and will identify common challenges encountered during the coordination process. FEMA will then develop recommendations based on stakeholder feedback and will prepare language accordingly for use in the next update of the Individual Assistance Program and Policy Guidance. FEMA anticipates that it will begin preparing language by March 31, 2021. As of March 2021, FEMA has provided draft language to update its guidance to state and local governments, which they plan to include in the next update of the Individual Assistance Program and Policy Guidance (IAPPG) in 2023. Once this guidance is incorporated into the updated IAPPG, we can consider the recommendation closed.
Federal Emergency Management Agency 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)
Closed - Implemented
DHS and FEMA agreed with this recommendation. In June 2020, FEMA said it plans to conduct a virtual Partnership Day meeting (to occur in increments throughout the month of July) to enable voluntary organizations to exchange information, to network and to support ongoing operations. FEMA provided evidence that the virtual Partnership Day took place from July 17 to August 17, 2020. This event was held as a month-long virtual event due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Federal Emergency Management Agency 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)
DHS and FEMA did not concur with this recommendation. The agencies said implementing this recommendation would increase the burden on grantees and could put certain communities at a disadvantage because grantees cannot control which partners participate. In addition, DHS and FEMA said that because capabilities assessments are not limited to mass care, such a requirement may have unintended consequences for other partners. FEMA plans to continue working with the mass care community to identify the best solution, including encouraging collaboration at all levels of government. Our recommendation specifies that FEMA should require grantees to solicit information from key mass care partners and to identify these partners in their submission. We recognize that grantees cannot compel partners to participate, but they can, at a minimum, invite such partners to participate in the process. We continue to believe that grantees should be required to make an effort to include mass care providers in developing their mass care capability assessments, as this is vital for developing high quality assessments. FEMA has emphasized the importance of having an active relationship and ongoing communication with key partners before disasters strike. In its Strategic Plan, FEMA states that pre-disaster coordination and communication among partners is critical to improve response and recovery outcomes. Thus, we do not believe it would be an undue burden to reach out to such partners as part of the capability assessment process. As of February 2021, we await the agency's update on its progress.
Federal Emergency Management Agency 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)
DHS and FEMA concur with this recommendation and will take steps to address it, although they didn't specify their plans. As of March 2021, FEMA provided information that they provided protocols on improving the quality of data submitted by grantees, which partly addresses the recommendation. FEMA, however, still needs to specify the conditions under which they will follow up with grantees. To fully implement this recommendation, they need to provide this information.
American Red Cross 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)
Closed - Implemented
In 2020, the American Red Cross developed an online collaboration platform to promote two-way data sharing with disaster partners. According to Red Cross officials, the purpose is to enhance situational awareness and inform data-driven decision making. The partners involved include non-profit, government, and private sector organizations active in disaster response and recovery. Currently, more than 100 data sets are shared with expansion ongoing. Phased implementation began in 2020. In addition, the Red Cross developed a new pilot program designed to amplify local community engagement efforts and build local capacity for underserved communities. Specifically, the Community Engagement Standards and Procedures is being field tested in seven pilot regions for one year. Pilot regions were selected based on a variety of factors including demographics and local capacity. According to the Red Cross, building these local partnerships works toward the goal of enhancing service delivery in communities of color, in particular the African American and Latino communities. The pilot program aims to 1) increase community trust; 2) provide greater access to Red Cross services in coordination with local partners; 3) enhance service delivery through culturally appropriate best practices and 4) establish a more empowered client experience.

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