Disaster Resilience: FEMA Should Take Additional Steps to Streamline Hazard Mitigation Grants and Assess Program Effects

GAO-21-140 Published: Feb 02, 2021. Publicly Released: Feb 02, 2021.
Jump To:
Fast Facts

FEMA obligated more than $11 billion through 4 grant programs that fund state and local hazard mitigation efforts (e.g., elevating homes and building tornado-safe rooms) for FY 2010 to 2018. The agency awarded about 88% of this amount through 2 grant programs that award grants post-disaster.

However, state and local officials report that the grant application process is complex and lengthy. FEMA intends to review the process, but has no documented plans to do so. Also, FEMA has developed training and guidance resources for applicants, but they can be hard to find on FEMA's website.

We made 6 recommendations to address these and other issues.

A house on stilts with beach chairs situated out front

Skip to Highlights
Highlights

What GAO Found

From fiscal years 2010 through 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) obligated over $11 billion through four grant programs that fund state and local hazard mitigation efforts. FEMA awarded about 88 percent of this amount through the two grant programs that fund hazard mitigation post-disaster.

State and local officials from selected jurisdictions reported challenges with FEMA's hazard mitigation grant programs. Specifically, officials GAO interviewed from 10 of the 12 jurisdictions said grant application processes were complex and lengthy. To address this, FEMA officials augmented guidance and began monitoring application review time frames for one program and said they intend to assess two other programs to identify opportunities to streamline. However, they did not have a documented plan for doing so. By developing and implementing a plan to identify ways to streamline applications and reviews for all four programs, FEMA could reduce barriers to investments in hazard mitigation. Officials from eight of the 12 jurisdictions also cited challenges with applicants' technical capacity to successfully apply for grants. To address this, FEMA developed training and guidance, but GAO found that these resources are listed on different parts of its website and can be difficult for state and local officials to locate. Creating a centralized inventory of resources could improve applicant capacity to successfully develop mitigation projects and apply for grants.

Examples of Hazard Mitigation Projects

Examples of Hazard Mitigation Projects

FEMA has assessed some effects of grant-funded hazard mitigation projects, but could expand efforts and better share results. FEMA uses benefit-cost analysis, which estimates the benefits over the life of a project, and post-disaster loss avoidance studies, which estimate project benefits from actual hazard events, to assess project effects. However, the loss avoidance studies have been limited to hurricanes, floods, and tornados, and have not assessed wildfires, winter storms, or other disasters. FEMA officials stated that they would like to expand these studies but do not have specific plans to do so. In addition, FEMA requires some states to assess the effectiveness of their mitigation projects, but does not share these studies. Developing a plan to conduct loss avoidance studies for other hazards and sharing the state studies could help FEMA and stakeholders make better informed mitigation investment decisions.

Why GAO Did This Study

The rising number of natural disasters and increasing reliance on federal assistance are key sources of federal fiscal exposure. FEMA has four grant programs to increase disaster resilience through hazard mitigation projects.

The Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act, 2019, included a provision for GAO to review the federal response to disasters in 2018. This report addresses 1) FEMA's use of grants to support hazard mitigation; 2) challenges reported by selected jurisdictions applying for grants; and 3) how FEMA has assessed the effects of its hazard mitigation projects and shared the results.

GAO analyzed FEMA's grant data for fiscal years 2010 through 2018 to capture the most complete recent data, conducted nongeneralizable site visits with 12 state and local jurisdictions selected to capture a range of grant funding levels and hazards, reviewed FEMA grant documents, and interviewed FEMA mitigation officials.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

GAO is making six recommendations, including that FEMA develop a plan to assess and streamline its hazard mitigation grant programs, create a centralized inventory of related resources, develop a plan to conduct more loss avoidance studies, and share state studies on hazard mitigation effectiveness. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Emergency Management Agency The Administrator of FEMA should establish a plan with time frames to develop pre-calculated benefits for additional project types, where appropriate. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
We found that selected state and local officials we interviewed experienced challenges with the required benefit-cost analysis for FEMA's hazard mitigation grant programs. FEMA had taken some steps to make it easier for state and local jurisdictions to complete benefit-cost analyses, including developing pre-calculated benefits that allow prospective applicants to forgo performing a detailed benefit-cost analysis for certain project types. FEMA officials said that they would like to develop pre-calculated benefits for additional project types but they did not have a plan to do so. We recommended that the Administrator of FEMA establish a plan with time frames to develop pre-calculated benefits for additional project types, where appropriate. In response, in January 2022, FEMA provided documentation showing that it had developed one additional pre-calculated benefit for hospital generators, updated the acquisition and elevation pre-calculated benefit, and established a plan with timeframes to develop pre-calculated benefits for additional project types. As a result, FEMA is better positioned to simplify the mitigation grant application process while ensuring mitigation investments are cost-effective.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The Administrator of FEMA should establish a plan with time frames to assess PA, HMGP, FMA, and BRIC hazard mitigation grant processes to identify and implement steps to reduce the complexity of and time required for grant applications, including steps to facilitate the use of funding from more than one FEMA mitigation grant program on a project. (Recommendation 2)
Open
FEMA concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. As of January 2022, FEMA stated it had several ongoing efforts to address this, including drafting strategic plans and roadmaps, meant to reduce complexity of its grant programs. To fully address this recommendation, FEMA will need to establish a plan with time frames to assess the mitigation grant programs to identify steps to reduce complexity and facilitate the use of funding from more than one FEMA mitigation grant program
Federal Emergency Management Agency The Administrator of FEMA should create a centralized inventory of hazard mitigation resources on the FEMA website. (Recommendation 3)
Open
FEMA concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. As of January 2022, FEMA stated that it was in the process of updating its web pages and guidance. To fully address this recommendation, FEMA will need to create a centralized inventory of its hazard mitigation resources on its website.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The Administrator of FEMA should develop a plan for conducting future loss avoidance studies to ensure they can include more hazard types. (Recommendation 4)
Open
FEMA concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. As of January 2022, FEMA stated it had established a team of experts to assess options for conducting loss avoidance studies on additional hazard types and create a framework for these decisions. To fully address this recommendation, FEMA will need to develop a plan for conducting future loss avoidance studies that will allow it to include more hazard types.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The Administrator of FEMA should ensure that as new methods and metrics to assess the effectiveness of hazard mitigation are developed, FEMA officials consider opportunities to adopt common methods and metrics across all of its hazard mitigation programs. (Recommendation 5)
Open
FEMA concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. As of November 2021, FEMA said it was developing new metrics for its BRIC and FMA programs. In addition, FEMA stated that its Hazard Mitigation Assistance Division was participating in FEMA's Grants Effectiveness Council, which is to harmonize measures of effectiveness across the various mitigation programs. To fully address this recommendation, FEMA will need to consider opportunities to adopt common methods and metrics all hazard mitigation programs.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The Administrator of FEMA should publicly share pre-calculated benefits studies and state developed records of effectiveness, such as by posting them to its website. (Recommendation 6)
Open
FEMA concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. As of January 2022, FEMA had posted to its website the methodology report for its most recently developed pre-calculated benefit for hospital generators and planned to similarly post any future methodologies it develops. To fully address this recommendation, FEMA will need to also share state developed records of effectiveness on its website.

Full Report

GAO Contacts