Disaster Assistance:

Improvement Needed in Disaster Declaration Criteria and Eligibility Assurance Procedures

GAO-01-837: Published: Aug 31, 2001. Publicly Released: Aug 31, 2001.

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Since 1990, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has provided more than $27 billion in disaster assistance, more than half of which was spent for public assistance projects, such as repairs of damaged roads, government buildings, utilities, and hospitals. FEMA uses established criteria to determine whether to (1) recommend that the President declare a disaster and (2) once a disaster has been declared, approve and fund Public Assistance projects. In 1999, FEMA published formal criteria for recommending the presidential approval of disaster declarations. These criteria include both minimum financial thresholds and other qualitative measures that FEMA applies in deciding whether to recommend presidential approval. These criteria do not necessarily indicate a state's ability to pay for the damage because they do not consider the substantial differences in states' financial capacities to respond when disasters occur. As a result, federal funds may be provided for some disasters when they are not needed. Problems with applying FEMA's criteria remain. In part, these problems may persist because many of the staff assigned to disaster field offices who make eligibility decisions are temporary and may not have the skills and training needed to make appropriate decisions. FEMA has developed a credentialing program to establish qualifications and training requirements for these staff but has not implemented this program. FEMA officials said that budgetary and programmatic factors have delayed implementation. In addition, FEMA's review process does not ensure that all projects are reviewed by the most knowledgeable officials. FEMA also lacks centralized, quantified information that would be helpful for managing the Public Assistance program. Its information system--essentially an electronic filing cabinet--stores information project by project and does not provide effectively for programwide analysis. Furthermore, the system is unreliable and difficult to use, according to FEMA officials. As a result, data are lost or never entered.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: While FEMA has clarified its criteria for individual project eligibility, it still experiences problems with the application of the criteria. Given the magnitude of the funds involved, the Director of FEMA should reconsider budgetary priorities to determine if a higher priority should be assigned to implementing a credentialing and training program for federal disaster staff that focuses on the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for each of the various roles involved in disaster management.

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

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, GAO reported on the status of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) efforts. We concluded that the Post Katrina Emergency Reform Act gave FEMA new human capital authorities and responsibilities, including requiring FEMA to develop a strategic plan on human capital, authorizing recruitment and retention bonuses for difficult-to-fill positions, and providing for the professional development of FEMA employees through rotations within DHS. Further, FEMA was to establish a Surge Capacity Force of trained individuals prepared to respond to disasters. We reported that FEMA contracted to perform a baseline assessment and preliminary design for professionalizing the Disaster Reserve Workforce and its supporting program management function, including FEMA's Surge Capacity Force planning. The contractor developed a preliminary design for the Disaster Reserve Workforce, which included an organizational concept, workforce size and composition, concept of operations, and a policy framework. An Interim Surge Capacity Force Plan was announced in a meeting of the DHS Human Capital Council in March 2008 and communicated to the heads of DHS components in a May 2008 memorandum from the FEMA Administrator.

    Recommendation: While FEMA has clarified its criteria for individual project eligibility, it still experiences problems with the application of the criteria. Given the magnitude of the funds involved, the Director of FEMA should develop internal control processes for ensuring appropriate reviews of disaster project worksheets--especially when specialists' reviews are required--to ensure that proposed projects meet eligibility requirements before receiving final approval and funding.

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

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, GAO reported on the status of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) efforts. We found that, in the Gulf Coast, large public assistance projects faced several challenges during the project development and start up process. We reported that FEMA plans to incorporate some project development flexibilities into its regular practices. For instance, FEMA's Public Assistance Catastrophic Disaster Recovery Concept Plan, finalized in May 2008, recognizes the need for regulations to allow applicants to more easily tailor projects to meet post disaster needs. These efforts should help improve application of program criteria for individual project eligibility.

    Recommendation: The Director of FEMA should consider whether a more sensitive measure would eliminate the need for a statewide $1 million threshold. At a minimum, the Director should consider adjusting the threshold for inflation and providing a more detailed rationale for whatever threshold is chosen.

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

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The factors considered to determine whether federal public assistance is needed include an assessment of the per capita impact of the disaster within affected states. Each year FEMA issues a notice that identifies the threshold to be used as one factor to be considered in the determination of whether public or individual assistance or both will be made available after a major disaster declaration has been issued. On October 7, 2005, FEMA issued a "Notice of Adjustment of Countywide Per Capita Impact Indicator" in the Federal Register. According to the notice, major disasters declared on or after October 1, 2005, would generally be expected to reach the threshold of $1.18 per capita for Public Assistance to be authorized. However, as reported by the Congressional Research Service (CRS RL33053 Federal Stafford Act Disaster Assistance:Presidential Declarations, Eligible Activities, and Funding) the statewide threshold is not the sole factor. Assessments consider concentrations of damages in local jurisdictions even if statewide damages are not severe.

    Recommendation: The Director of FEMA should develop more objective and specific criteria to assess the capabilities of state and local governments to respond to a disaster. Specifically, the Director should consider replacing the per-capita measure of state capability with a more sensitive measure, such as a state's total taxable resources.

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

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2007, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued new guidance (Public Assistance Guide FEMA 322) that included a new initiative for State Management of Disasters. Under the State Management of Disasters (SMD) initiative, in some cases an interested and capable State, or Tribal government acting as its own Grantee, may manage the field operation, including project eligibility reviews, process control, and resource allocation on small disasters. The participating State voluntarily enters into an Operational Agreement with FEMA, which entrusts many aspects of program management to the State. FEMA retains obligation authority, ensures compliance with environmental and historic preservation laws, participates in quality control reviews with the State, and provides technical assistance as requested by the State.

    Recommendation: While FEMA has clarified its criteria for individual project eligibility, it still experiences problems with the application of the criteria. Given the magnitude of the funds involved, the Director of FEMA should establish a plan to identify recurring problems identified by internal and external audits and take appropriate actions to minimize recurrence.

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

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, GAO reported on the status of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) efforts. We found that the Post Katrina Emergency Reform Act authorizes FEMA to conduct a Public Assistance (PA) pilot program intended to reduce the cost, increase the flexibility, and expedite the provision of assistance. In June 2007, FEMA established new procedures under the pilot program (Public Assistance Pilot Program Guidance for FEMA, State and Local Officials FEMA 598/June 2007) and waived certain Stafford Act provisions and regulations for the purposes of the program. Nonetheless, we reported that FEMA has faced a wide range of challenges in administering PA grants including difficulties related to developing projects, barriers to sharing information, and shortcomings in some of its project decision processes. For example, we found cases where PA information was not effectively shared among federal, state, and local entities directly involved in the process as well as others including Congress and the public. This type of information sharing could facilitate a more systematic review of recurring problems identified by internal and external audits. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General reported in 2010 that FEMA has established some appropriate performance objectives to use in judging the PA program's performance. However, the performance objectives in the current assessment methodology needed to be clarified and improved to produce more meaningful and useful results of the PA program's timeliness and customer satisfaction. While FEMA established the objectives for measuring PA program performance, these measures do not include objectives to identify and reduce recurring problems identified by internal and external audits.

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