2018 Pacific Island Disasters: Federal Actions Helped Facilitate the Response, but FEMA Needs to Address Long-Term Recovery Challenges

GAO-21-91 Published: Feb 03, 2021. Publicly Released: Feb 03, 2021.
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Fast Facts

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and Hawaii experienced an unprecedented number of natural disasters in 2018—including typhoons, earthquakes, mudslides, and volcanic eruptions. Their distance from the continental U.S. creates unique challenges for emergency responders.

FEMA has worked to address these challenges, but it could improve disaster recovery in several areas. For instance, the agency could provide speedier housing assistance to survivors. We recommended, among other things, that FEMA streamline its housing assistance process.

A lava flow in Hawaii in 2018

Lava flowing through a field

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) took steps prior to the 2018 disasters in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), Guam, and Hawaii to facilitate response in the region, where time and distance from the continental United States create unique challenges. For instance, FEMA increased the capacity of two Pacific-area supply distribution centers and helped develop area specific disaster response plans. FEMA and its federal partners, such as the Department of Defense (DOD), had varied response roles, which local officials in the CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii considered effective. For example, DOD provided temporary roof repair for disaster survivors in the CNMI.

Damage from Typhoon Yutu in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (left) and the Kilauea Volcano Eruption in Hawaii (right)

Damage from Typhoon Yutu in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (left) and the Kilauea Volcano Eruption in Hawaii (right)

As of October 2020, FEMA obligated $877 million—more than 70 percent of which was for Individual and Public Assistance missions—following the 2018 disasters and made progress addressing some region specific challenges. However, FEMA has not fully addressed housing assistance issues in the CNMI. For example, it experienced delays implementing its Permanent Housing Construction program in the CNMI due to contracting shortfalls and lack of experienced staff. As of October 2020, only about 30 percent of homes were completed and returned to survivors. GAO found that these housing assistance challenges are consistent with lessons learned from prior FEMA missions in other remote areas of the U.S. Developing guidance that addresses lessons learned in the Permanent Housing Construction program could help streamline assistance to disaster survivors.

GAO also identified delays in FEMA's obligation of Public Assistance program funds—used to repair or replace disaster-damaged public infrastructure such as utilities, roads, and schools—in the CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii. Specifically, on average, it took over a year for FEMA to approve funds for projects awarded after the 2018 disasters. FEMA and local officials identified potential reasons for the delays, including cost estimation challenges. FEMA established cost factors in the CNMI to account for higher construction costs, and GAO found that FEMA collects some data on the timeliness of individual steps in the process. However, FEMA has not analyzed the data to help identify causes of the delays, which could allow it to target solutions to address them.

Why GAO Did This Study

The CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii experienced an unprecedented number of natural disasters in 2018—including typhoons, earthquakes, mudslides, and volcanic eruptions. FEMA is the lead federal agency responsible for helping states and territories prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters. Due to the remoteness of Hawaii and the Pacific territories, disaster response and recovery can be challenging.

Title IX of the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019 includes a provision for GAO to review FEMA's response and recovery efforts for 2018 natural disasters, including those in the Pacific region. This report examines (1) how FEMA and its federal partners prepared for and responded to the 2018 disasters in the CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii; and (2) the extent to which FEMA assisted the CNMI, Guam, and Hawaii in recovering from the 2018 natural disasters.

GAO analyzed program documents, response plans, and data on FEMA obligations, expenditures, and grant process steps as of October 2020; interviewed federal, state, territorial, and local officials; and visited disaster-damaged areas in Hawaii.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations, including that FEMA (1) incorporate lessons learned into Permanent Housing Construction guidance; and (2) use performance data to identify and address inefficiencies in the Public Assistance program. The Department of Homeland Security concurred, and FEMA is taking actions in response.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA administrator should develop guidance to streamline the process to assist direct housing applicants with proof of residency and proof of ownership requirements in those locations, such as in insular areas, where the nature of housing may otherwise result in processing delays due to the volume of required waivers or modifications to these requirements. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
In February 2021, we reported on federal actions following the 2018 Pacific Islands Disasters (GAO-21-91). During the course of this review, we found that the nature of housing in Hawaii and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (the CNMI) meant that disaster survivors did not always have the documentation that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) required for proof of occupancy and ownership, resulting in delayed delivery of housing assistance. For example, in the CNMI, property is often passed down from generation to generation without formal documentation, presenting a challenge in providing necessary paperwork to FEMA. FEMA guidance provided some flexibilities for providing such documentation, but these were only applicable as a last resort. We recommended that FEMA develop guidance to assist housing applicants with these requirements. In response to our recommendation and pursuant to Executive Order 13985 ("Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government"), in April 2021, FEMA posted a Request for Information in the Federal Register seeking information on the extent to which existing Agency programs, regulations, and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups; bolster resilience to the impact of climate change; and address the disproportionately high and adverse climate-related impacts on disadvantaged communities. Based on the analysis of this feedback, FEMA leadership refocused the Agency's efforts to implement policy changes to the Individuals and Households Program to address perceived inequities, including assessing policy updates regarding proof of ownership and occupancy for all forms of Housing Assistance. As a result, FEMA's May 2021 Individual Assistance Program and Policy Guide expands the types and acceptable dates of documents that may be submitted for proof of residency and occupancy. This updated guidance should provide flexible proof of residency and ownership documentation options to streamline the process for direct housing applicants. As a result of these actions, this recommendation is closed as implemented.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA administrator should incorporate lessons learned from earlier Permanent Housing Construction missions and address long-standing issues, such as the lack of architecture and engineering services in its existing contracts, in guidance that outlines necessary steps to better plan for and implement the Permanent Housing Construction program in insular and other remote areas. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
In February 2021, we reported on federal actions following the 2018 Pacific Islands Disasters (GAO-21-91). During the course of this review, we found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had not addressed long-standing challenges with its Permanent Housing Construction program, leading to delays in the repair and construction of homes for survivors in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. For example, FEMA had not addressed known contracting shortfalls, including the lack of architecture and engineering services in its suite of available contracts. Additionally, FEMA staff had limited experience with this program, and FEMA lacked implementing guidance that incorporated lessons learned from prior missions to guide staff in planning and implementing the program. We recommended that FEMA incorporate lessons learned from prior Permanent Housing Construction missions in guidance to outline necessary steps to better plan and implement future missions in insular and other remote areas. In response to our recommendation, FEMA's July 2021 updated Direct Housing Guide provides additional implementing guidance, including identifying roles and responsibilities for FEMA staff and providing contracting strategies and options. For example, the updated guide includes an additional contracting option for architecture and engineering services and provides detailed information to help staff better plan for and implement this program. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA administrator should consider the unique challenges of recovery missions for large-scale disasters in U.S. insular and other remote areas to establish appropriate timeliness goals for the pre-award phase of the Public Assistance program specific to these types of disasters. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
In February 2021, we reported on federal actions following the 2018 Pacific Islands Disasters (GAO-21-91). During the course of this review, we found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had not developed timeliness measures for the pre-award phase of its Public Assistance program that take into consideration the unique challenges following large-scale disasters in remote areas. We reported that FEMA did not meet its two national-level performance goals for this phase in fiscal year 2019, and FEMA officials noted that these goals may not be appropriate for larger catastrophic disasters in insular areas that may require prioritization of other activities, such as immediate survivor needs. We recommended that FEMA consider the unique challenges of recovery missions of large-scale disasters in U.S. insular and other remote areas to establish appropriate timeliness goals for the pre-award phase of the Public Assistance program specific to these types of disasters. In response to our recommendation, in May 2022, FEMA issued the Infrastructure Branch Director and Public Assistance Group Supervisor Position Assist Addendum that provides guidance on how to establish disaster-specific timeliness metrics based on the unique characteristics of post-disaster recovery. Specifically, the guidance provides baseline metrics for each phase of the process and outlines instances where planning may need to consider additional time based on the number of applicants, time needed to deploy and train FEMA staff, and technical assistance needs, among other things. Implementing this guidance should enable FEMA to better plan for the challenges and needs specific to recovery missions of large-scale disasters in U.S. insular and other remote areas and establish more appropriate timeliness goals. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA administrator should use data relating to the timeliness of completing various steps within the pre-award phase of the Public Assistance program to help identify and address any inefficiencies occurring during this phase of the program. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
In February 2021, we reported on federal actions following the 2018 Pacific Islands Disasters (GAO-21-91). During the course of this review, we found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was not using data to identify the cause of delays in the pre-award phase of its Public Assistance program. Specifically, FEMA set two national-level performance goals for this phase, but had not met these targets in fiscal year 2019. Although FEMA collected data on timeliness for individual steps in the process, it had not established a process to comprehensively analyze and use these data. We recommended that FEMA use the data it collected relating to the timeliness of completing various steps within the pre-award phase of the Public Assistance program to identify and address inefficiencies causing delays. In March 2021, FEMA's Recovery Analytics and Public Assistance Divisions published a live dashboard tool with timeliness metrics on FEMA's intranet, accessible to FEMA staff, that captures metrics at the FEMA- and applicant-level and provides data under 5 performance goals. This interactive dashboard tool will allow FEMA leadership and supervisors to evaluate performance by disaster and location in order to better identify inefficiencies and hold the agency accountable for meeting related timeliness targets and performance goals. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

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