Recent hurricanes, wildfires, and other events have highlighted the challenges the federal government faces in responding effectively to natural and man-made disasters—both in terms of immediate response and for long-term recovery efforts.
Response & Recovery
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) leads the national effort to ensure that the federal government has the capacity to respond to disasters—i.e., determining what needs to be done, where, and by whom.
INFOGRAPHIC: Disaster Assistance
We’ve identified a number of ways that FEMA could improve its ability to manage this effort. For example, we recommended that FEMA collect information on the status of federal interagency efforts
FEMA could also better manage and retain employees that serve on its Incident Management Assistance Teams—which help coordinate support and evacuation help during disasters that require federal assistance.
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Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security awarded over $40 billion to state and local governments between fiscal years 2002-2015 to enhance their capacity to respond to emergencies and disasters. However, we’ve found that FEMA needs to complete a national preparedness assessment to identify the potential costs for establishing and maintaining those capabilities at state and local governments. This would also help FEMA determine the resources federal agencies should provide during emergencies. In response, FEMA has begun annual state-level capability assessments.
Finally, FEMA helps fund recovery efforts after major disasters. FEMA obligated over $104 billion from the Disaster Relief Fund alone during Fiscal Years 2005 through 2014. When disaster assistance across 17 federal departments is include for this period, at least $278 billion have been obligated for disaster assistance. For example, FEMA provided $45.8 billion in funds through the Public Assistance program (PA) for states and communities to repair or replace publicly owned facilities during this period. GAO found that FEMA needs to conduct a more comprehensive assessment of a jurisdiction's ability to respond to and recover from a disaster without federal assistance. FEMA is also considering establishing a disaster deductible, which would require a predetermined level of financial or other commitment from a state or local government before FEMA would provide financial assistance under the PA program. FEMA has also recently redesigned the PA program to address past challenges and make the program easier for FEMA and grantee officials to manage; however, opportunities exist to enhance implementation of these program changes in all disaster recovery efforts, including for the recovery from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
To help reduce disaster losses and promote easier recovery, jurisdictions and individuals can undertake hazard mitigation and climate adaptation efforts in advance of disaster to increase disaster resilience for communities and critical infrastructure. FEMA has multiple grant programs that can help jurisdictions plan and implement hazard mitigation projects. Among these is the Hazard Mitigation Grant program, which is designed specifically to help jurisdictions who have been affected by a disaster take actions to reduce future losses as they recover. Other federal programs to address disaster recovery can also be used help promote disaster resilience, but we found that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy jurisdictions faced a variety of challenges using these funds to maximize resilience and that an investment strategy to better prioritize, integrate, and balance disaster resilience efforts across federal and nonfederal entities would help.
Region II Source: FEMA
Related GAO Reports
2017 Disaster Contracting: Observations on Federal Contracting for Response and Recovery Efforts
GAO-18-335, Feb 28, 2018
Federal Disaster Assistance: Federal Departments and Agencies Obligated at Least $277.6 Billion during Fiscal Years 2005 through 2014
GAO-16-797, Sep 22, 2016
Disaster Assistance: Opportunities to Enhance Implementation of the Redesigned Public Assistance Grant Program
GAO-18-30, Nov 8, 2017
Emergency Preparedness: Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Interagency Assessments and Accountability for Closing Capability Gaps
GAO-15-20, Dec 19, 2014
Hurricane Sandy: An Investment Strategy Could Help the Federal Government Enhance National Resilience for Future Disasters
GAO-15-515, Jul 30, 2015
Disaster Response: FEMA Has Made Progress Implementing Key Programs, but Opportunities for Improvement Exist
GAO-16-87, Feb 5, 2016
Federal Disaster Assistance: Improved Criteria Needed to Assess a Jurisdiction's Capability to Respond and Recover on Its Own
GAO-12-838, Sep 12, 2012
- Chris Currie
- Director, Homeland Security and Justice