Disaster Recovery:

FEMA's Public Assistance Grant Program Experienced Challenges with Gulf Coast Rebuilding

GAO-09-129: Published: Dec 18, 2008. Publicly Released: Dec 18, 2008.

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The devastation caused by the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes presented the nation with unprecedented rebuilding challenges. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Public Assistance (PA) grant program is a key tool for providing funds to support recovery, including rebuilding public schools, roads, and utilities. GAO was asked to examine the amount of PA grants FEMA has provided for rebuilding the Gulf Coast; challenges in the day-to-day operation of the PA program; and human capital challenges; as well as actions taken to address them. Toward this end, GAO reviewed relevant laws, PA regulations and procedures, and analyzed data from FEMA's National Emergency Management Information System. GAO also interviewed federal officials from FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding as well as more than 60 officials from state government and eight localities in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Funding for PA grants related to the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes is already more than $11 billion, surpassing that of any previous disaster, and will likely be higher than FEMA's total cost estimate of $13.2 billion. About 90 percent of these funds have gone to the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, about half of which have passed from the states to grant applicants to date. GAO identified challenges in the following broad areas, many of which contributed to slowing down rebuilding projects. (1) Project Development: Challenges in the development of PA projects included difficulties determining the amount of damage that was disaster-related, using PA program flexibilities to rebuild in a way that meets postdisaster needs, assessing project scope including whether to repair or replace damaged structures, estimating project costs, and having sufficient resources to initiate projects. For example, assessing the damage to New Orleans's water and sewer system was complicated by the difficulty distinguishing disaster-related from preexisting damage. Estimating the cost of PA projects presented special challenges because of unusual market conditions for labor and materials in the postdisaster economy. (2) Information Sharing and Tracking: GAO identified challenges in sharing information among federal, state, and local participants in the PA process as well as in tracking the status of projects. For example, in Louisiana, information sharing was made more difficult in the absence of an effective document-sharing system and because key FEMA and state officials who review PA applications are located in different cities. (3) Project Approvals and Appeals: FEMA's approval decisions on some projects were reversed after applicants had already moved ahead with construction. In addition, decisions on appeals were often not made within required time frames due to the large number of rebuilding projects. (4) Human Capital: Human capital challenges at all levels of government underlie many of the above challenges and also slowed rebuilding projects. Shortages of experienced and knowledgeable staff were particularly problematic during the initial stages of rebuilding. FEMA's early reliance on temporary rotating staff did not provide the level of continuity needed for the complex demands of Gulf Coast rebuilding. Among the actions DHS has taken to address these challenges are the finalization of a PA catastrophic disaster recovery concept plan that recognizes the need to more easily tailor projects to meet postdisaster conditions; the development of new management information systems to better track and manage projects and increase the transparency of PA funding; and the creation of a credentialing program for employees.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: FEMA has provided GAO with supporting documentation about how it has changed the way it captures and reports on Public Assistance Grant project information. GAO has reached out to FEMA to obtain additional clarifying information regarding the agency's actions and to verify implementation.

    Recommendation: To help DHS improve the operation of the PA grant program and build on some of the actions taken to date, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to improve PA reporting by better defining information presented in FEMA's periodic reports to Congress and the public; specifically provide the number of unique PA projects in addition to figures that include changes to projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA's new grant tracking and management system -- the Emergency Management Mission Integrated Environment (EMMIE) -- provides a mechanism to address this recommendation. EMMIE is a Web-based, Internet application that enables Public Assistance (PA) grantees (i.e. states) and PA Program applicants (e.g. local governments) to complete, submit, monitor, and manage their respective PA project applications online. According to FEMA, the EMMIE system has facilitated more effective communication among Grantees, PA applicants, and the agency.

    Recommendation: To help DHS improve the operation of the PA grant program and build on some of the actions taken to date, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to improve information sharing within the PA process by identifying and disseminating practices that facilitate more effective communication among federal, state, and local entities, including the development of tools that promote document sharing such as Mississippi's online accounting system.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FEMA's Public Assistance (PA) Division has instituted a PA Consistency Initiative, including a Mid-Level Manager Hiring Plan and PA Consistency Training in an effort to address the issue of PA project continuity discussed in this recommendation. More specifically, the PA Division's Mid-Level Managers Hiring Initiative was designed to identify, train, and deploy a group of dedicated mid-level managers to provide consistency in the implementation of PA program during disaster activity. According to FEMA, as of September 2013, the PA division has identified, hired, and trained 14 Mid-Level Managers for Region II and III and these staff are currently supporting disaster activities in those regions. In addition, the division has completed interviews in Region V and selected 13 candidates, and of those selected, 11 have accepted the positions. The division has also completed interviews with potential candidates in Region VI and has selected candidates and offered positions, and is in the process of doing so in Region VII as well. According to FEMA, the division continues to work with Regions I, IV, VIII, IX, and X to schedule interviews. In addition, FEMA has developed and instituted a PA Consistency Training program to help ensure that stakeholders are trained in the appropriate implementation and administration of the PA Program and the usage of related systems and processes. The PA Consistency Training module consists of a Field Pocket Guide, EMMIE, and PA Dashboard training. As of Sept. 2013, approximately 1200 individuals took the Full Consistency Training (i.e. Field Pocket Guide, EMMIE, and PA Dashboard). Finally, the PA Division has begun using online sites, like SharePoint and Enterprise Data Warehouse, to address continuity and knowledge sharing concerns. For example, the PA SharePoint website provides a central storage and collaboration space for documents, information, and ideas. According to FEMA, the site helps HQ and the Regions share information and work together by facilitating (1) the coordination of projects, calendars and schedules; (2) the discussion of ideas and the reviewing of PA documents or proposals; (3) and general sharing of information, among other things.

    Recommendation: To help DHS improve the operation of the PA grant program and build on some of the actions taken to date, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to strengthen continuity among staff involved in administering the PA program by developing protocols to improve information and document sharing among FEMA staff, such as requiring that staff maintain a record of project decisions to share with rotating staff, or by more broadly adopting a team approach so that more than one individual is aware of the details of specific projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Recognizing the importance of providing for continuity among staff involved in administering the PA program, FEMA has developed detailed protocols to help facilitate the smooth and effective transfer of responsibility for delivering assistance authorized by the public assistance program (Public Assistance Program Delivery Transition Standard Operating Procedure). In addition, FEMA has made the commitment that moving forward it will take steps to ensure state and local constituencies are alerted to key field staff rotations.

    Recommendation: To help DHS improve the operation of the PA grant program and build on some of the actions taken to date, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to strengthen continuity among staff involved in administering the PA program by communicating the timing of expected FEMA staff rotations to applicants directly affected by those staffing changes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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