Hurricane Sandy:

An Investment Strategy Could Help the Federal Government Enhance National Resilience for Future Disasters

GAO-15-515: Published: Jul 30, 2015. Publicly Released: Jul 30, 2015.

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What GAO Found

During the Hurricane Sandy Recovery, five federal programs—the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Public Assistance (PA), Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), the Federal Transit Administration's Public Transportation Emergency Relief Program, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Hurricane Sandy program—helped enhance disaster resilience—the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to disasters. These programs funded a number of disaster-resilience measures, for example, acquiring and demolishing at-risk properties, elevating flood-prone structures, and erecting physical flood barriers.

State and local officials from the states affected by Hurricane Sandy GAO contacted reported that they were able to effectively leverage federal programs to enhance disaster resilience, but also experienced challenges that could result in missed opportunities. The challenges fell into three categories:

  • implementation challenges with PA and HMGP—for example, officials reported that FEMA officials did not always help them pursue opportunities to incorporate mitigation into permanent construction recovery projects;
  • limitations on comprehensive risk reduction approaches in a postdisaster environment—for example, officials reported difficulties with navigating multiple funding streams and various regulations of the different federal programs funded after Hurricane Sandy; and
  • local ability and willingness to participate—for example, officials reported that some home and business owners were unwilling or unable to bear the required personal cost share for a home-elevation or other mitigation project.

FEMA officials told us that they were aware of some of these challenges and recognize the need to further assess them. Assessing the challenges and taking corrective actions, as needed, could help enhance disaster resilience.

There is no comprehensive, strategic approach to identifying, prioritizing and implementing investments for disaster resilience, which increases the risk that the federal government and nonfederal partners will experience lower returns on investments or lost opportunities to strengthen key critical infrastructure and lifelines. Most federal funding for hazard mitigation is available after a disaster. For example, from fiscal years 2011-2014, FEMA obligated more than $3.2 billion for HMGP postdisaster hazard mitigation while the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program obligated approximately $222 million. There are benefits to investing in resilience postdisaster. Individuals and communities affected by a disaster may be more likely to invest their own resources while recovering. However, there are also challenges. Specifically, the emphasis on the postdisaster environment can create a reactionary and fragmented approach where disasters determine when and for what purpose the federal government invests in disaster resilience. The Mitigation Framework Leadership Group (MitFLG) was created to help coordinate hazard mitigation efforts of relevant local, state, tribal, and federal organizations. A comprehensive investment strategy, coordinated by MitFLG, could help address some challenges state and local officials experienced.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 appropriated about $50 billion for recovery from Hurricane Sandy, part of which was intended for disaster resilience and hazard mitigation. In March 2015, GAO identified the cost of disasters as a key source of federal fiscal exposure. GAO and others have advocated hazard mitigation to help limit the nation's fiscal exposure.

GAO was asked to review federal efforts to strengthen disaster resilience during Hurricane Sandy recovery. This report addresses (1) how federal recovery funds were used to enhance resilience, (2) the extent to which states and localities were able to maximize federal funding to enhance resilience; and (3) actions that could enhance resilience for future disasters.

To conduct this work, GAO reviewed key federal documents such as the National Mitigation Framework , interviewed federal officials responsible for programs that fund disaster resilience, and administered structured interviews and surveys to all 12 states, the District of Columbia, and New York City in the Sandy affected-region.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that (1) FEMA assess the challenges state and local officials reported and implement corrective actions as needed and (2) MitFLG establish an investment strategy to identify, prioritize, and implement federal investments in disaster resilience. The Department of Homeland Security agreed with both.

For more information, contact Chris Currie at (404) 679-1875 or curriec@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In December 2017, FEMA officials provided documentation showing that the agency had reviewed the Public Assistance program in coordination with stakeholders from states, tribal nations, and local governments. During this effort, several challenges were highlighted that coincided with the challenges experienced by state and local officials during the recovery from Hurricane Sandy, which were highlighted in GAO-15-515. To address those issues, FEMA has implemented a new Public Assistance delivery model focused on improving three key areas: communication, funding, and staffing. For example, FEMA has standardized communications and designating a Program Delivery Manager to ensure that mitigation is discussed early during recovery projects. In addition, FEMA issued a Minimum Standards Policy that requires buildings eligible for repair, replacement or construction located in a hazard-prone are to use, at a minimum, the hazard resistant design provisions reflected in the most recent edition of the International Code Council's building codes.

    Recommendation: To increase states' abilities to improve disaster resilience and mitigate future damage when using federal funding in the wake of disasters, the FEMA Administrator should, consistent with the goals of the NDRF to integrate hazard mitigation and risk reduction opportunities into all major decisions and reinvestments during the recovery process, assess the challenges state and local officials reported, including the extent to which the challenges can be addressed and implement corrective actions, as needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response: Federal Emergency Management Agency

  2. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In January 2018, the National Mitigation Leadership Framework Group (MitFLG) released a draft National Mitigation Investment Strategy (NMIS) for a public comment period that extended through March 2018. Just prior to release, officials who are serving on a working group and are responsible for coordinating the strategy, contacted GAO with an advance copy to solicit comments. We provided comments to emphasize key issues that we believe will be important to effectively monitor implementation of the strategy and hold those responsible accountable for achieving important outcomes. We also noted that the draft strategy, as it then existed, generally addressed the issues we raised in GAO-15-515 and would likely meet the intent of the recommendation, if similar content remained in the final version. On August 8, 2018, we were contacted by key FEMA officials with responsibility for coordinating interagency work on the NMIS. These officials reported that, in response to comments, and to better align NMIS with the 2018 FEMA Strategic Plan, the NMIS working group revised the draft goals. The officials said that the new anticipated timeline for the final NMIS was February 2019. We informed the officials that a strategy that focused solely on FEMA would likely not meet the intent of the recommendation, and that the final strategy should emphasize strategic goals that help establish national priorities and promote interagency action. On August 23, 2018, FEMA officials sent a draft checklist of conditions that would satisfy the recommendation. This list included the goal of establishing strategic goals that guide national priorities and promote interagency action. To fully implement this recommendation, MitFLG needs to finalize NMIS to help identify, prioritize, and guide federal investments in disaster resilience and hazard mitigation-related activities.

    Recommendation: To help the federal, state, and local governments plan for and invest in hazard mitigation opportunities to enhance resilience against future disasters, the Director of the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group, in coordination with other departments and agencies that are MitFLG members, should supplement the National Mitigation Framework by establishing an investment strategy to identify, prioritize, and guide federal investments in disaster resilience and hazard mitigation-related activities and make recommendations to the President and Congress on how the nation should prioritize future disaster resilience investments. Such a strategy could address, among other things, (1) the extent to which current hazard mitigation and disaster resilience programs are adequately addressing critical lifelines and critical infrastructure, (2) an approach to identifying information on what disaster resilience and hazard mitigation efforts are most effective against known risks and their potential impacts on the nation's fiscal exposure, (3) the balance of federal and nonfederal investments, and (4) the balance of pre- and postdisaster resilience investments.

    Agency Affected: Mitigation Framework Leadership Group

 

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