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Disaster Management: Recent Disasters Demonstrate the Need to Improve the Nation's Response Strategy

T-RCED-93-4 Published: Jan 27, 1993. Publicly Released: Jan 27, 1993.
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GAO discussed the federal government's strategy for responding to catastrophic disasters. GAO noted that: (1) the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) response to Hurricane Andrew showed that the Federal Response Plan is not adequate for dealing with disasters; (2) state, local, and volunteer agencies did not provide the necessary amount of life-sustaining services after Hurricane Andrew; (3) improving FEMA damage assessments, developing a disaster unit, and enacting legislation that would facilitate preparatory action would improve the nation's response to disasters; (4) federal agencies need to mobilize resources and deploy personnel in anticipation of a catastrophe; (5) the key to successfully responding to a catastrophic disaster is providing sufficient life-sustaining assistance; and (6) the federal government does not have explicit authority to adequately prepare for a disaster when there is warning.


Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
Congress should consider providing explicit legislative authority for FEMA and other federal agencies to take actions to prepare for catastrophic disasters when there is warning.
Closed – Not Implemented
This recommendation has remained open for nearly 4 years. Lack of congressional action is probably attributable to FEMA's improved performance in rapid response to disasters within its existing legislative authorities. Also, FEMA's Office of General Counsel has ruled that current legislation provides the authority to predeploy when advance warning of a disaster is available.
Congress should consider removing statutory restrictions on DOD authority to activate reserve units for catastrophic relief.
Closed – Not Implemented
This was actually a matter for consideration of the Congress in NSIAD report 93-180, which RCED repeated in its testimony on behalf of NSIAD. The NSIAD review and resulting report was essentially a companion review performed on DOD's role in Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki, while RCED concurrently reviewed and reported on FEMA's and other civil agencies' activities. NSIAD has dropped this recommendation from its list of open recommendations due to lack of congressional action.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA should conduct independent and comprehensive damage and needs assessments and compile the information so that it can be effectively translated into specific requests for federal assistance. In doing so, attention should be given to identifying and using the resources and expertise that currently exits in the National Preparedness Directorate.
Closed – Implemented
As a result of a major FEMA reorganization in late 1993, many personnel and resources of the former National Preparedness Directorate are now available for natural disaster damage and needs assessment. Many related actions are in process, such as developing teams of personnel trained and skilled in making rapid field assessments, development of software to enhance automated development and exchange of data, and an interagency examination of the use of aircraft and spacecraft for damage assessment.
Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA should use the authority that exists under the Stafford Act to aggressively respond to catastrophic disasters. This response should include actively advising state and local officials of identified needs and the federal resources available to address them.
Closed – Implemented
FEMA has become much more proactive in catastrophic and other disasters since the time of the report. Their efforts in this regard have been highly praised by members of Congress. For example, FEMA personnel pre-deploy to disaster sites when disasters such as hurricanes can be anticipated; and rapid response, pre-staffed teams have been established. Materials likely to be quickly needed by disaster victims have been prepackaged and are shipped to disaster scenes in anticipation of need, rather than waiting for states to request them as was done in the past.
Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA should recognize that, in the case of catastrophic disasters, only the Department of Defense (DOD) has the resources and capability required to meet victims' mass care needs. In this regard, FEMA, rather than the American Red Cross, should determine what assistance is required from federal agencies, such as DOD, to provide mass care.
Closed – Not Implemented
Both FEMA and DOD agree that the present approach works well, and while DOD will always provide as much disaster support as possible, that support cannot be totally relied upon, as disaster support must be secondary to DOD's defense missions. Further, the various emergency support functions, such as mass care, are headed by the appropriate agency having the authority, resources, and capabilities to carry out the function.
Federal Emergency Management Agency FEMA should enhance state and local governments' capacity to respond to catastrophic disasters by taking the following actions: (1) continue to give state and local governments increasing flexibility to match grant funding with their individual response needs; (2) upgrade training and exercises specifically geared towards catastrophic disaster response; and (3) assess each state's preparedness for catastrophic disaster response.
Closed – Not Implemented
FEMA has taken action to liberalize grantees' use of grant funds, and it has conducted major training exercises dealing with catastrophic disasters. However, the emphasis at FEMA is on devolving management of these issues to the states, with the states identifying their own training and exercise needs based on the specific threats each state faces, and for the states to perform self-assessments of their own readiness. FEMA's role becomes more of a technical assistance and advisory role, rather than the past practice of establishing goals and objectives for the states. An accomplishment report might be contemplated for the liberalization of the grants, but as can be seen from the recommendation's phraseology, action was already underway.

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