Disaster Assistance:

Federal Aid to the New York City Area Following the Attacks of September 11th and Challenges Confronting FEMA

GAO-03-1174T: Published: Sep 24, 2003. Publicly Released: Sep 24, 2003.

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The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, resulted in one of the largest catastrophes this country has ever experienced. The federal government has been a key participant in the efforts to provide aid after the attacks, and it has been providing the New York City area with funds and other forms of assistance. The magnitude of the disaster in New York and the size and scope of the federal government's response in aiding the city has generated significant interest in the nature and progress of this federal assistance. This testimony focuses on (1) how much and what types of assistance the federal government provided to the New York City area following the September 11 terrorist attacks, (2) how the federal government's response to this disaster differed from previous disaster response efforts, and (3) the ongoing challenges FEMA faces as it, and its mission, are subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security.

As of June 30, 2003, an estimated $20 billion of federal assistance has been committed to the New York City area, primarily through FEMA, DOT, HUD, and the Liberty Zone tax benefits. The $2.55 billion for initial response efforts included numerous assistance programs, such as search and rescue operations, debris removal operations, emergency transportation measures, and emergency utility service repair. FEMA provided the bulk of the federal funds for initial response efforts--$2.20 billion--but DOT and HUD also provided funds. Compensation for disaster-related costs and losses totaled about $4.81 billion. This funding, provided by FEMA and HUD, compensated state and local organizations, individuals, and businesses for disaster-related costs, such as mortgage and rental assistance to individuals and grants to businesses to cover economic losses. The amount committed for infrastructure restoration and improvement efforts is $5.57 billion. The $20 billion to assist the New York City area differed from previous disaster response efforts in that it was the first time in which the amount of federal disaster assistance to be provided was set early in the response and recovery efforts, which resulted in two major changes to the federal approach. First, the specified level of funding for the entire federal response to this disaster changed the traditional approach to administering FEMA funds. In an effort to ensure that all FEMA funds were expended for this disaster, FEMA broadly interpreted its provisions within the Stafford Act, and the Congress authorized FEMA to compensate the city and state for costs such as increased security that it could not otherwise have funded within provisions of the Stafford Act. Secondly, this specific level of funding for the disaster prompted Congressional appropriations that authorized numerous forms of non-traditional assistance by agencies other than FEMA, such as the Liberty Zone tax benefit plan and improvements to the transportation infrastructure that exceeded normal replacement cost. Simultaneous to FEMA's efforts to assist the New York City area's recovery from September 11, FEMA faced the challenge of being transferred into the newly formed DHS. As we previously reported in our 2003 Performance and Accountability Series, FEMA faces ongoing management challenges resulting from its transfer into DHS, and DHS itself faces the daunting challenge of combining FEMA and 21 other agencies with various missions into an effective and collaborative agency. Recognizing the magnitude of the overall challenge in establishing DHS, GAO has designated the implementation and transformation of the department as high-risk. Several of the specific challenges that FEMA faces include the need to (1) ensure effective coordination of preparedness and response efforts, (2) enhance provision and management of disaster assistance for efficient and effective response, and (3) reduce the impact of natural hazards by improving the efficiency of mitigation and flood programs. We have ongoing work that is focusing on FEMA's challenges in each of these areas and will be reporting on these efforts in the near future.

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