Key Issues > Disaster Management
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Disaster Management

Natural disasters and terrorist attacks are horrific events, often unpredictable, and capable of devastating communities and crippling regional economies. The destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy and the extensive rebuilding effort in New York and New Jersey provide a jarring reminder of how sudden and devastating these events can be. Disaster management—preparation, response, recovery, and mitigation—can be costly, and typically involves the efforts of multiple federal agencies, multiple levels of government, and the private and non-profit sectors. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the key component of the federal government’s efforts to minimize the financial impact of floods, is also an important element of disaster management, but comprehensive reforms will need to be implemented successfully to ensure the program’s stability.

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The effectiveness of U.S. disaster management efforts can be examined through five themes that are important to successful disaster management efforts:

  • Clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Having clearly defined, coordinated, and well-understood roles and responsibilities for all levels of government and their nongovernmental partners is critical in coordinating the development and implementation of the responsibilities of the various parties involved.
  • Developing and Assessing Capabilities. Developing the capabilities needed for catastrophic disasters should be part of an overall national effort designed to integrate and define what needs to be done, where, by whom, and how well coupled with the creation and use of metrics for assessing current capabilities and identifying key gaps that need to be filled. Ensuring needed capabilities are ready requires effective planning and coordination, plus robust training and exercises in which the capabilities are realistically tested and problems are identified and subsequently addressed in partnership with federal, state, local, and nongovernmental stakeholders. In addition, integrating an all-hazards risk management framework into decision making is central to assessing catastrophic disaster risks and guiding the development of national capabilities to prevent or mitigate where possible and respond to such risks.
  • Effective coordination and collaboration among relevant stakeholders. Response to and recovery from a major disaster is a complex process that involves an extensive group of participants both across the federal government and at the state and local level. Recovery may take years. At least 14 federal departments and agencies are responsible for administering dozens of recovery-related programs, many of which rely heavily on active participation by state and local government for their implementation. Because these parties are dependent on each other to accomplish recovery goals, sustained focus and effective coordination and collaboration are essential.
  • Accountability. Accountability controls and mechanisms ensure that resources are used appropriately for valid purposes. Following a catastrophic disaster, decision makers face a tension between the demand for rapid response and recovery assistance—including assistance to victims—and implementing appropriate controls and accountability mechanisms.
  • Periodic evaluation of and reporting on these coordinated efforts. Collaboration between recovery partners can be enhanced by periodically evaluating and reporting on what worked, what can be improved, and what progress is still needed to address long-term recovery goals. This will assist decision makers, clients, and stakeholders to obtain the feedback needed to improve both the policy and operational effectiveness of recovery efforts.

Although the NFIP is an integral element of the federal government’s efforts to minimize damage from floods, it has not generated sufficient revenues to repay the billions of dollars borrowed from the Treasury. As of May 2013, FEMA owed $24 billion—up from $17.8 billion prior to Superstorm Sandy—and had not repaid any principal on its loans since 2010. The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 (the Act) addresses a number of the program’s financial weaknesses, for example by reducing the number of properties that are charged premium rates that do not reflect the full risk of loss. However, the extent to which the changes included in the Act will reduce the financial exposure created by the program is not yet clear. Operational and management challenges at FEMA, which administers the NFIP, have hampered the agency’s ability to stabilize the program. GAO has made numerous recommendations aimed at improving financial controls, oversight of private insurers and contractors, and FEMA’s management of NFIP, and FEMA has taken a number of actions that begin to address these challenges.

Looking for our recommendations? Click on any report to find each associated recommendation and its current implementation status.

Flood Insurance:

More Information Needed on Subsidized Properties
GAO-13-607:
Published: Jul 3, 2013. Publicly Released: Jul 3, 2013.

National Preparedness:

FEMA Has Made Progress, but Additional Steps Are Needed to Improve Grant Management and Assess Capabilities
GAO-13-637T:
Published: Jun 25, 2013. Publicly Released: Jun 25, 2013.

Homeland Defense:

DOD Needs to Address Gaps in Homeland Defense and Civil Support Guidance
GAO-13-128:
Published: Oct 24, 2012. Publicly Released: Oct 25, 2012.

Federal Disaster Assistance:

Improved Criteria Needed to Assess a Jurisdiction's Capability to Respond and Recover on Its Own
GAO-12-838:
Published: Sep 12, 2012. Publicly Released: Sep 12, 2012.

Disaster Recovery:

Experiences from Past Disasters Offer Insights for Effective Collaboration after Catastrophic Events
GAO-09-811:
Published: Jul 31, 2009. Publicly Released: Aug 31, 2009.

Catastrophic Disasters:

More Reports

Disaster Recovery:

Federal Contracting in the Aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
GAO-11-942T:
Published: Sep 15, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 15, 2011.

Homeland Security:

Homeland Security:

Haiti Reconstruction:

U.S. Efforts Have Begun, Expanded Oversight Still to Be Implemented
GAO-11-415:
Published: May 19, 2011. Publicly Released: May 19, 2011.

Measuring Disaster Preparedness:

FEMA Has Made Limited Progress in Assessing National Capabilities
GAO-11-260T:
Published: Mar 17, 2011. Publicly Released: Mar 17, 2011.

Disaster Response:

Criteria for Developing and Validating Effective Response Plans
GAO-10-969T:
Published: Sep 22, 2010. Publicly Released: Sep 22, 2010.

Rebuilding Iraq:

Iraq and Afghanistan:

Security, Economic, and Governance Challenges to Rebuilding Efforts Should Be Addressed in U.S. Strategies
GAO-09-476T:
Published: Mar 25, 2009. Publicly Released: Mar 25, 2009.

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