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Disaster Response: FEMA and the American Red Cross Need to Ensure Key Mass Care Organizations are Included in Coordination and Planning

GAO-19-526 Published: Sep 19, 2019. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2019.
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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)
Closed – Implemented
DHS and FEMA concurred with this recommendation. In July 2022, FEMA published a guide for state, local, territorial, and tribal governments (SLTT) to developing mass care service agreements with non-governmental organizations. The guide discusses what the agreements with non-governmental organizations are, why they are valuable, how to form a working group, key components to consider when forming agreements, how they may be used operationally, and wrap-up activities following an event.
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)
Closed – Implemented
To ensure more accurate mass care capability assessments, FEMA has encouraged its local partners to involve the whole community, including voluntary organizations, in the THIRA/SPR process. These efforts include providing assistance related to engaging community stakeholders in capability assessments and making high quality capability estimates. In 2021, FEMA/NPAD conducted several technical assistance sessions to describe strategies for engaging local stakeholders and provided guidance on how communities could use their data. The technical assistance identified the importance of engaging key stakeholders in the THIRA/SPR data collection process and discussed strategies to overcome challenges engaging stakeholders in the community. In addition, the FEMA Regional offices provided feedback on areas where THIRA/SPR data collection could be improved. Although FEMA has not required that grantees solicit capabilities information from mass care service providers, FEMA took these other actions that improve the accuracy of assessments, addressing the intent of this recommendation.
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)
Closed – Implemented
DHS and FEMA concurred with this recommendation. FEMA developed protocols to improve the quality of data submitted by grantees. To build the emergency preparedness capabilities of grantees, in 2021, FEMA regional office staff utilized a checklist to analyze the quality of the data provided in communities' THIRA/SPR submissions. This checklist was then used as a basis for feedback to communities' submissions and also helped standardize feedback across the FEMA regions.
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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Disaster reliefDisaster responseDisastersEmergency managementEmergency preparednessHomeland securityHurricanesLocal governmentsNational response frameworkPublic and private partnerships