Catastrophic Disasters:

Enhanced Leadership, Capabilities, and Accountability Controls Will Improve the Effectiveness of the Nation's Preparedness, Response, and Recovery System

GAO-06-618: Published: Sep 6, 2006. Publicly Released: Sep 6, 2006.

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Hurricane Katrina was the largest, most destructive natural disaster in our nation's history. The problems experienced in responding to Katrina resulted in a number of investigations--by congressional committees, the White House Homeland Security Council, and others--regarding the preparations for and response to Katrina. GAO assisted the congressional investigations and, under the Comptroller General's authority, initiated a number of Katrina-related reviews. In March 2006 testimony, GAO provided its preliminary observations to Congress. The purpose of this report is to summarize what went well and why, what did not go well and why, and what changes are needed to improve the nation's readiness to respond to a catastrophic disaster; and to identify selected issues associated with the Gulf Coast's recovery. This report is based on GAO's prior work on catastrophic disasters, including Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the over 30 GAO reports completed to date on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, ongoing GAO work, and other Hurricane Katrina reviews and lessons learned.

Hurricane Katrina was a catastrophic disaster whose scope and destruction severely tested all levels of governments in the affected areas and the nation as a whole. It almost immediately overwhelmed state and local first responders, and the response required outside action and support from many sources. The heroic efforts by many saved thousands of lives. The federal government, many states, local governments, plus nonprofit and private sector organizations provided substantial personnel and resources to assist in the response, but these proved insufficient to meet the immediate challenges posed by Hurricane Katrina's effects. The three basic elements in preparing for, responding to and recovering from any catastrophic disaster are (1) leadership; (2) capabilities; and (3) accountability. Leadership in the form of legal authorities, roles and responsibilities, and lines of authority at all levels of government must be clearly defined, effectively communicated, and well understood in order to facilitate rapid and effective decision making. DHS has made revisions to the National Response Plan designed to further clarify federal roles and responsibilities, but their effect has not yet been tested in an actual disaster. 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. Ensuring needed capabilities are ready requires effective planning and coordination, plus robust training and exercises in which the capabilities are realistically tested, problems 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. DHS has announced a number of actions to improve readiness and response for catastrophic disasters, but there is little information available on the extent to which these changes are operational. 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. Our work and that of others found, for example, the processes for confirming disaster victims' eligibility for assistance were insufficient and resulted in millions of dollars in questionable payments to fraudulent claimants. Also, some contracts had insufficient provisions to ensure that prices were fair and reasonable. DHS has reported that it has taken steps to address some of the concerns, including working to complete more contracts for key services in advance of a disaster and improving its ability to verify individual claimant eligibility for disaster benefits and assistance.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress provided such authority through the enactment of section 681 of the Post-Katrina Act. This provision amends sections 402 and 502 of the Stafford Act to authorize the President to provide accelerated federal assistance in the absence of a specific request where necessary to save lives, prevent human suffering, or mitigate severe damage in a major disaster or emergency. See 42 U.S.C. 5170(a)(5), 42 U.S.C. 5192(a)(8).

    Matter: Reaffirming a recommendation made following Hurricane Andrew, Congress may wish to consider giving federal agencies explicit authority to take actions to prepare for catastrophic disasters when there is warning.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Perceived problems with the implementation of the National Response Plan during Hurricane Katrina led Congress to enact the Post-Katrina Management Reform Act (P.L. 109-295) to integrate preparedness and response authorities. The Act made organizational changes within the Department of Homeland Security to consolidate emergency preparedness and emergency response functions within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that are intended to enhance the nation's ability to respond to catastrophic disasters using a risk-management framework. According to the act, the primary mission of FEMA is to: reduce the loss of life and property and protect the Nation from all hazards, including natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters, by leading and supporting the Nation in a risk-based, comprehensive emergency management system of preparedness, protection, response, recovery, and mitigation.

    Matter: In carrying out its oversight and legislative responsibilities with regard to national preparedness and the recovery of the Gulf Coast region, Congress may wish to consider using a risk management framework to assist in its oversight and legislative decision-making regarding the nation's capacity to respond to catastrophic disasters.

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Hurricane Katrina response spurred a number of legislative proposals to amend the Homeland Security Act and restructure the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Some bills sought to restore FEMA to an independent cabinet-level agency separate from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Other bills proposed to maintain FEMA within DHS but give it enhanced authorities. The latter approach ultimately prevailed with the enactment of the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, which maintained FEMA as a DHS entity but strengthened its role within DHS, functionally and organizationally.

    Matter: If Congress is considering a change in the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) organizational placement, it may wish to consider (1) whether factors such as the qualifications, experience, and training of the leadership and the adequacy of resources led to its performance difficulties; (2) criteria such as mission relevancy, similar goals, and objectives (present and future); (3) leveraging the effectiveness of other agencies and programs or the new department as a whole; and (4) gains in efficiency and effectiveness through eliminating duplications and overlaps.

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Through the enactment of the Post-Katrina Reform Act, Congress established statutory qualification requirements for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator and other key positions within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Regarding the FEMA Administrator, the Post-Katrina Act required the appointee to have a demonstrated ability in and knowledge of emergency and not less than 5 years of executive leadership and management experience in the public or private sector. See 6 U.S.C. 313(c)(2). The Post-Katrina Act also established statutory qualification requirements for FEMA's Regional Administrators (6 U.S.C. 317(b)(2)) and the DHS Chief Medical Office (6 U.S.C. 321e(b)).

    Matter: If Congress is considering a change in the qualifications of the Undersecretary for Federal Emergency Management, it may wish to consider establishing statutory professional qualifications for the Undersecretary and other selected key positions within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and term appointments for the Undersecretary and selected other positions.

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Legislative reports do not explicitly indicate that Congress considered the four conditions that we suggested in 1984 as a framework of ideas about how to structure future financial assistance programs and what program requirements to include to achieve Congressional goals and objectives while minimizing the risk of financial loss to the government.

    Matter: In carrying out its oversight and legislative responsibilities with regard to national preparedness and the recovery of the Gulf Coast region, Congress may wish to consider the four conditions that we suggested in 1984, as a framework of ideas about how to structure future financial assistance programs and what program requirements to include to achieve Congressional goals and objectives while minimizing the risk of financial loss to the government. These guidelines are a useful framework for developing assistance programs for the Gulf Coast restoration. Specifically, Congress may wish to consider (1) identifying the scope of the problem, such as if the problem reflects broader industry wide or regional economic conditions. For the Gulf Coast, this would involve financial and economic analyses, perhaps utilizing current studies of prior conditions and the ongoing progress of recovery and rebuilding. (2) Clearly establishing the effect of the problem on the national interest, for example, whether the problem presents potentially large economy wide or regional consequences. For example, in the Gulf Coast, Congress should consider the costs of municipal and corporate collapse and the challenges associated with providing assistance. (3) Associating the legislative goals and objectives with the response clearly, concisely, and consistently. For example, in the Gulf Coast, goals and objectives for rebuilding should be clearly stated, working with the state and local groups already tasked with recovery planning and with the Administration's Coordinator of Federal Support for the Recovery and Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region. (4) Protecting the government's financial interest. In the Gulf Coast, controls might be put in place so that the most important financial and operating plans will be reviewed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2009, we reported that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has taken actions to implement the National Exercise Program at the federal and state levels by developing, among other things, program guidance and systems to track corrective actions since 2007. Although we identified challenges FEMA faces in ensuring that the exercises are carried out consistent with program guidance, the steps taken by the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA reflect implementation of our recommendations in September 2006. Because FEMA is now responsible for the National Exercise Program and we made a specific recommendation that FEMA collaborate with the Homeland Security Council to provide FEMA with the information it needs from past principal level exercises to enable it to conduct remedial action tracking, we consider this prior recommendation closed as implemented and will continue to monitor FEMA's efforts to respond to our new recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should rigorously re-test, train, and exercise its recent clarification of the roles, responsibilities, and lines of authority for all levels of leadership, implementing changes needed to remedy identified coordination problems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In April 2009, we reported that, while most policies (41 of 50) that define roles and responsibilities have been completed, such as the National Response Framework, 68 percent (49 of 72) of the plans to implement these policies, including several for catastrophic incidents, are not yet complete. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) efforts to complete the remaining operational plans were in progress as of August 2009. In February 2010, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) reviewed FEMA's progress in developing incident management plans associated with the National Planning Scenarios and found that full set of plans has not yet been completed for any of the scenarios. The OIG recommended, among other things, that FEMA provide guidance to federal departments and agencies to facilitate the incorporation of performance and effectiveness measures into operations plans.

    Recommendation: DHS should direct that the National Response Plan (NRP) base plan and its Catastrophic Incident Annex be supported by more robust and detailed operational implementation plans, particularly the Catastrophic Incident Supplement to the NRP. Such operational plans should, for example, further define and leverage those military capabilities that might be needed in a catastrophic disaster.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2009, we reported that, since 2007, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has taken a number of actions to implement the National Exercise Program including requiring that state and local entities that receive Homeland Security Grant Program funding for their exercises adhere to specific Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program guidance for exercise program management, design, conduct, evaluation, and improvement planning. Because FEMA is now responsible for the National Exercise Program and we made a specific recommendation that FEMA develop procedures for including lessons learned from real-world incidents in the Corrective Action Program system, we consider this prior recommendation closed as implemented and will continue to monitor FEMA's efforts to respond to our new recommendation.

    Recommendation: DHS should provide guidance and direction for federal, state, and local planning, training, and exercises to ensure such activities fully support preparedness, response, and recovery responsibilities at a jurisdictional and regional basis. This should also include the application of lessons learned from actual catastrophic and other disasters.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2009, we reported that, since 2007, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has taken a number of actions to implement the National Exercise Program and has taken the lead in monitoring federal agencies efforts to meet their responsibilities by developing an implementation plan for nine federal departments or agencies involved in national preparedness exercises. The implementation plan establishes the foundation for the National Exercise Program by outlining policy and guidance for federal interagency coordination. Among other things, the plan requires that senior officers of the federal government participate in exercise activities, which federal departments and agencies budget and plan for exercise participation, and that federal departments, agencies, or offices responsible for coordinating exercises adhere to the principles of the National Exercise Program. Because FEMA is now responsible for the National Exercise Program and we made a specific recommendation that FEMA develop a program management plan, in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal entities, to ensure the completion of the key national preparedness policies and plans called for in legislation, presidential directives, and existing policy and doctrine, to define roles and responsibilities and planning processes, as well as to fully integrate such policies and plans into other elements of the national preparedness system, we consider this prior recommendation closed as implemented and will continue to monitor FEMA's efforts to respond to our new recommendation.

    Recommendation: DHS should take the lead in monitoring federal agencies' efforts to meet their responsibilities under the NRP and the interim National Preparedness Goal, including the development, testing, and exercising of agency operational plans to implement their responsibilities under the NRP, National Incident Management System (NIMS), and the interim National Preparedness Goal.

    Agency Affected: Congress

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since 2007, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has taken initial actions to develop a comprehensive assessment system and collect information for state and federal capability reporting. We reported in April 2009, that FEMA had developed a project management plan outlining efforts to establish the comprehensive assessment system to assess capabilities using 37 target capabilities (needed to respond to all hazards) and function as a central repository for national preparedness data. Because FEMA is now responsible for conducting a national assessment of preparedness capabilities and we made a specific recommendation that FEMA develop a project management plan to improve its approach for developing a comprehensive assessment system we consider this prior recommendation closed as implemented and will continue to monitor FEMA's efforts to respond to our new recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given that resources are finite, DHS should apply an all-hazards, risk management approach in deciding whether and how to invest in specific capabilities for a catastrophic disaster.

    Agency Affected: Congress

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has taken the following series of actions: - Prescripted Mission Assignments: FEMA finalized a catalog of prescripted mission assignments (PSMA) in June 2008; - Modification of Existing Registry: FEMA asked the General Services Administration (GSA) to modify an existing federal contractor registry; -Created the "Guide to Utilizing Department of Homeland Security Strategically Sourced Contracts." The guide enables individuals engaged in the acquisition of goods and services for FEMA to capitalize on the use of more than 160 pre-existing, enterprise-wide contract vehicles to satisfy mission requirements where it makes good business sense. The guide provides details and additional information on specific contract vehicles and order procedures for each commodity. -Developed a draft "Incident Management and Support Keystone Plan" - which identifies key tenants under the National Response Framework, including 'Scalable, Flexible, and Adaptable Operational Capabilities.' - Developed a "Disaster Response Contract Toolbox" -- which lists 29 contracts in place for disaster response. The attached lists also IDs contractors and service types: Logistics, Mitigation, IT, Recovery, and Support services.

    Recommendation: DHS should provide guidance on advance procurement practices and procedures for those federal agencies with roles and responsibilities under the NRP, so that these agencies can better manage disaster-related procurements, such as food, shelter, and debris removal. These practices should be in advance of disasters, ongoing and continuous, and include (1) developing knowledge of contractor capabilities and available commodities, services and prices as well as developing pre-established vendor relationships, on a competitive basis whenever feasible; (2) establishing scalable operations plans to adjust the level of capacity needed to respond; (3) formally assigning and communicating disaster-related responsibilities and, where feasible, incorporating necessary training; and (4) providing sufficient numbers of field-level contracting staff to meet mission requirements. DHS should also establish an assessment process to monitor agencies' continuous planning efforts for their disaster-related procurement needs and the maintenance of capabilities.

    Agency Affected: Congress

 

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