Disaster Recovery: Additional Actions Needed to Identify and Address Potential Recovery Barriers

GAO-22-104039 Published: Dec 15, 2021. Publicly Released: Dec 15, 2021.
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Fast Facts

Some disaster survivors—specifically people living in low-income neighborhoods or rural isolated areas, people of color, and people with disabilities—have problems accessing disaster assistance programs and recovery resources.

We found that most federal recovery programs in our review did not collect or analyze demographic data from applicants to specifically identify potential access barriers that survivors face.

We recommended that disaster assistance agencies work together on a plan that specifies the data needed to help more equitably serve disaster survivors and create processes to routinely identify and address access barriers.

Aerial Photo of Wildfire Damage, Santa Rosa, California, October 11, 2017

aerial view of residential area destroyed by fire

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Limited research exists on the relationship between disaster outcomes and the six federal recovery programs included in this GAO review: the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Individual Assistance and Public Assistance programs, National Flood Insurance Program, and Hazard Mitigation Grant Program; the Small Business Administration's (SBA) Disaster Loan program; and Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery. The design of the nine available studies did not allow GAO to draw conclusions about causal relationships between federal disaster recovery programs and overall recovery outcomes. Of the studies that were available, GAO grouped the findings into two categories: (1) socioeconomic outcomes and (2) community resilience outcomes. Our review of socioeconomic studies suggested that outcomes of disaster assistance for individual programs may be uneven across communities. This review also suggested that federal programs may enhance community resilience and prevent flood-related fatalities for vulnerable residents.

Limited research exists on the relationship between participation in select federal recovery programs and individual, community, and program characteristics. However, GAO found that some studies and stakeholder perspectives provided insight into the relationships between socioeconomic, demographic, community, and programmatic characteristics and participation. For example, a study of counties in one state found greater levels of flood mitigation in communities with larger tax revenues and larger budgets for emergency management. In addition, officials representing states said larger cities can hire a third party to manage disaster recovery, but small towns and rural areas may lack resources to contract for disaster recovery services. Similarly, an official representing tribal nations told GAO that not all tribal nations have sufficient funding to develop emergency management departments, which can be a barrier to accessing federal resources. Further, representatives from voluntary organizations told GAO that conditions of socioeconomic vulnerability—such as lower-income households or homelessness—may present barriers to participating in federal recovery programs.

Some of the six federal recovery programs in this report have taken some actions that could help officials identify and address potential access barriers and disparate outcomes. However, programs lack key information—data and analysis—that would allow them to examine patterns and indicators of potential access barriers and disparate recovery outcomes. Moreover, the programs have not taken action to determine (1) the universe of data needed to support this kind of analysis; and (2) sources and methods to obtain those data when the programs do not already collect them, including overcoming key challenges. These programs also lacked routine, interagency processes to address such barriers within or across recovery programs on an ongoing basis. Systematic efforts to collect and analyze data, and routine, interagency processes to address any identified access barriers or disparate outcomes, would help ensure equal opportunity to participate in disaster recovery in a meaningful way. Such actions would be consistent with the National Disaster Recovery Framework and recent governmentwide equity initiatives.

Why GAO Did This Study

Disasters affect numerous American communities and cause billions of dollars of damage. Many factors affect individual and community recovery. Recently, federal actions have focused on equitable administration of federal recovery assistance.

Members of Congress asked GAO to report on the impact of federal disaster recovery programs on various societal groups. This report addresses (1) research findings on recovery outcomes related to select federal programs, (2) research findings and recovery stakeholder perspectives on participation in select federal recovery programs, and (3) the extent to which federal disaster recovery agencies have taken actions to identify and address potential access barriers and disparate outcomes.

GAO conducted a literature review to summarize key research findings and interviewed state, tribal, and nonprofit recovery stakeholders to gain their perspectives. GAO analyzed program documentation and interviewed federal program officials from the six federal programs selected because of their historically large obligations for disaster recovery.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that FEMA, HUD, and SBA lead an interagency effort to develop (1) a plan to ensure use of comprehensive information and (2) processes to identify and address access barriers and disparate outcomes. FEMA and SBA concurred. HUD did not agree or disagree with the recommendations, but officials stated they would work with federal recovery partners on these issues.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should, in coordination with the SBA Associate Administrator of the Office of Disaster Assistance and the HUD Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development, develop, with input from key recovery partners, and implement an interagency plan to help ensure the availability and use of quality information that includes (1) information requirements, (2) data sources and methods, and (3) strategies for overcoming information challenges—to support federal agencies involved in disaster recovery in identifying access barriers or disparate outcomes. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In June 2022, FEMA officials told us of several efforts underway or planned to improve their information about access barriers or disparate outcomes. For example, they planned to begin collecting additional demographic characteristics from FEMA Individual Assistance registrants and revise their data sharing agreements with SBA and HUD by the latter part of calendar year 2023. They noted that although SBA and HUD intend to collect demographic data on their own applicants, all three agencies would require access to data on FEMA applicants' demographics and outcomes to determine whether their programs were reaching all vulnerable groups. FEMA officials also told us that they developed dashboards for FEMA's Public Assistance and Individuals Assistance programs that allow them to view FEMA program applications and outcomes by community level data, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Social Vulnerability Index. FEMA officials told us that as they begin collecting individual applicants' demographic data, they will add that to the dashboards. These and other efforts FEMA has underway may improve FEMA's information about program access barriers or disparate outcomes. However, to address the recommendation and ensure the availability and use of quality information needed to identify access barriers and disparate outcomes, FEMA (together with HUD and SBA) will have to develop and implement a documented, interagency plan that specifies the data needed, the sources of those data, and the methods for obtaining those data.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should coordinate with the SBA Associate Administrator of the Office of Disaster Assistance and the HUD Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development to design and establish routine processes to be used within and across federal disaster recovery programs to address identified access barriers and disparate outcomes on an ongoing basis. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In June 2022, FEMA officials told us they were coordinating with SBA and HUD on the design of dashboards that each agency would use to identify access barriers and disparate outcomes. FEMA officials planned to share the results of their equity analysis by November 2022 and possibly convene interagency staff or leadership to address specific issues identified. To address the recommendation, FEMA will need to work with HUD and SBA to design and institutionalize routine processes to be used within and across federal recovery programs to address identified access barriers and disparate outcomes on an ongoing basis.
Department of Housing and Urban Development
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The HUD Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development should, in coordination with the FEMA Administrator and SBA, develop, with input from key recovery partners, and implement an interagency plan to help ensure the availability and use of quality information that includes (1) information requirements, (2) data sources and methods, and (3) strategies for overcoming information challenges—to support federal agencies involved in disaster recovery in identifying access barriers or disparate outcomes. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In July 2022, HUD officials sent a letter that described planned and ongoing actions for overcoming information limitations that impede their ability to identify access barriers to and disparate outcomes from CDBG-DR funding. Specifically, HUD officials explained that in March 2022, HUD entered into an interagency agreement with FEMA to coordinate data sharing. In addition, they explained that HUD is participating in an interagency group to assess and overcome privacy data-sharing constraints across federal agencies that provide direct services to disaster survivors. Further, they explained that HUD, in coordination with FEMA and SBA, have committed to providing technical assistance to federal agencies involved in disaster recovery to build tools that would allow them to share data and use data to support their equity efforts. These efforts may improve HUD's access to information needed to help them identify access barriers and disparate outcomes from CDBG-DR funding. However, to address the recommendation and ensure the availability and use of quality information needed to identify access barriers and disparate outcomes, HUD (together with FEMA and SBA) will need to develop and implement a documented, interagency plan that specifies the data needed, the sources of those data, and the methods for obtaining those data.
Department of Housing and Urban Development
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The HUD Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development should coordinate with the FEMA Administrator and SBA to design and establish routine processes to be used within and across federal disaster recovery programs to address identified access barriers and disparate outcomes on an ongoing basis. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In July 2022, HUD officials shared a pilot dashboard designed to help them understand the demographics of disaster survivors who benefit from CDBG-DR funds. Although the dashboard may be a useful tool for reporting on CDBG-DR's performance and status of CDBG-DR funded-projects for disaster recovery, the dashboard is not responsive to the recommendation. HUD officials explained that they will use the dashboard to conduct equity analyses to help identify disparate outcomes. According to the letter, HUD plans to share its equity analyses with FEMA and SBA, and HUD officials are prepared to convene interagency staff and leadership working groups to address issues identified in the equity analyses. However, the dashboard is not a documented routine process to address identified access barriers and disparate outcomes. To address the recommendation, HUD (together with FEMA and SBA) need to design and institutionalize routine processes to be used within and across federal recovery programs to address identified access barriers and disparate outcomes on an ongoing basis.
Small Business Administration
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The SBA Associate Administrator of the Office of Disaster Assistance should, in coordination with the FEMA Administrator and the HUD Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development, develop, with input from key recovery partners, and implement an interagency plan to help ensure the availability and use of quality information that includes (1) information requirements, (2) data sources and methods, and (3) strategies for overcoming information challenges—to support federal agencies involved in disaster recovery in identifying access barriers or disparate outcomes. (Recommendation 5)
Open
In September 2022, SBA officials told us of several efforts underway or planned to improve the availability of demographic data needed to identify access barriers and disparate outcomes. For example, as of April 2022, SBA began collecting voluntary applicant information on demographic characteristics-veteran status, gender, race, and ethnicity-through its disaster loan application, which would improve the availability of demographic data about individuals applying for SBA loans. SBA officials also explained that they plan to enhance their data sharing with FEMA and are in the process of determining next steps. However, to address the recommendation and ensure the availability and use of quality information needed to identify access barriers and disparate outcomes, SBA (together with FEMA and HUD) will need to develop and implement a documented, interagency plan that specifies the data needed, the sources of those data, and the methods for obtaining those data.
Small Business Administration
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The SBA Associate Administrator of the Office of Disaster Assistance should coordinate with the FEMA Administrator and the HUD Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development to design and establish routine processes to be used within and across federal recovery programs to address identified access barriers and disparate outcomes on an ongoing basis. (Recommendation 6)
Open
In September 2022, SBA officials sent a letter that described efforts to enhance coordination, communication, and data sharing with FEMA and HUD related to equity in their recovery programs. For example, SBA officials stated that SBA, FEMA, and HUD officials have ongoing, interagency meetings and have committed to providing technical assistance to build tools that would allow them to share and use data to support their efforts to improve equity. In addition, they noted that SBA modified the income tables they use for the disaster loan application process to quickly determine applicants that should be referred for FEMA grant assistance. However, to address the recommendation, SBA (together with FEMA and HUD) need to design and institutionalize routine processes to be used within and across federal recovery programs to address identified access barriers and disparate outcomes on an ongoing basis.

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