oversight

Emergency Management: FEMA Has Made Progress, but Challenges and Future Risks Highlight Imperative for Further Improvements

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2019-06-12.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                            United States Government Accountability Office
                            Testimony
                            Before the Committee on Homeland
                            Security, House of Representatives



                            EMERGENCY
For Release on Delivery
Expected at 10:00 a.m. ET
Wednesday, June 12, 2019

                            MANAGEMENT
                            FEMA Has Made
                            Progress, but Challenges
                            and Future Risks Highlight
                            Imperative for Further
                            Improvements
                            Statement of Chris Currie, Director, Homeland Security
                            and Justice




GAO-19-594T
                                                June 12, 2019

                                                EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT
                                                FEMA Has Made Progress, but Challenges and Future
                                                Risks Highlight Imperative for Further Improvements
Highlights of GAO-19-594T, a testimony before
the Committee on Homeland Security, House of
Representatives




Why GAO Did This Study                          What GAO Found
Recent hurricanes, wildfires, and               GAO’s issued and ongoing work identified progress and challenges in the
flooding have highlighted the challenges        Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster resilience,
the federal government faces in                 response, recovery, and workforce management efforts, as discussed below.
responding effectively to natural
disasters. The 2017 and 2018                    Disaster Resilience. GAO found that federal and local efforts to improve
hurricanes and wildfires affected millions      resilience can reduce the effects and costs of future disasters. FEMA has made
of individuals and caused billions of           progress in this area, but in July 2015, GAO found that states and localities faced
dollars in damages. In March 2019, the          challenges using federal funds to maximize resilient rebuilding following a
Midwest experienced historic flooding           disaster. GAO recommended that the Mitigation Framework Leadership Group—
that affected millions of acres of              an interagency body chaired by FEMA—create a national strategy to better plan
agriculture and damaged significant             for and invest in disaster resilience. FEMA is working to address this
infrastructure. Since 2005, federal             recommendation and plans to publish the strategy by July 2019.
funding for disaster assistance is at
least $450 billion. Increasing reliance on      Damage from Hurricane Michael in Florida and Wildfires in California
federal help to address natural disasters
is a key source of federal fiscal
exposure, particularly as certain
extreme weather events become more
frequent and intense due to climate
change.
This statement discusses, among other
things, FEMA’s progress and challenges
related to disaster resilience, response,
recovery, and workforce management.
This statement is based on GAO reports
issued from March 2011 through May
2019, and also includes preliminary             Response and Recovery. In September 2018, GAO reported that the response
observations from ongoing GAO reviews           to the 2017 disasters in Texas, Florida, and California showed progress since
of FEMA operations. For ongoing work,           Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Specifically, FEMA and state officials’ pre-existing
GAO reviewed federal laws; analyzed             relationships and exercises aided the response and helped address various
documents; interviewed agency officials;        challenges. However, GAO and FEMA identified challenges that slowed and
and visited disaster damaged areas in           complicated FEMA’s response to Hurricane Maria, particularly in Puerto Rico.
California, Florida, South Carolina,            GAO’s issued and ongoing work also identified challenges in implementing
North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Texas, and         FEMA Public Assistance grants. For example, FEMA and Puerto Rico officials
the U.S. Virgin Islands, where GAO also         identified challenges with Public Assistance policies and guidance that have
interviewed FEMA and local officials.           complicated and slowed the recovery. GAO did not make recommendations, but
What GAO Recommends                             continues to evaluate recovery efforts and will report its findings later this year.

GAO has made numerous                           FEMA Workforce Management. GAO has previously reported on long-standing
recommendations in its prior reports to         workforce management challenges, such as ensuring an adequately-staffed and
FEMA designed to address the                    trained workforce. For example, GAO reported in September 2018 that the 2017
challenges discussed in this statement.         disasters overwhelmed FEMA’s workforce and a lack of trained personnel with
As of May 2019, FEMA has addressed              program expertise led to complications in its response efforts, particularly after
about half of these recommendations             Hurricane Maria. While FEMA has taken actions to address several of GAO’s
and GAO is monitoring FEMA’s ongoing            workforce management-related recommendations since 2016, a number of
efforts.                                        recommendations remain open as the 2019 hurricane season begins. Also, GAO
                                                is currently reviewing FEMA’s workforce management efforts and lessons
View GAO-19-594T. For more information,
contact Chris Currie at (404) 679-1875 or,      learned from the 2017 disasters and will report its findings early next year.
curriec@gao.gov
                                                ______________________________________ United States Government Accountability Office
Letter
         Letter




         Chairman Thompson, Ranking Member Rogers and Members of the
         Committee:

         Thank you for the opportunity to discuss our work on the Federal
         Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster preparedness,
         response, and recovery operations. Recent hurricanes, wildfires, and
         other events have highlighted the challenges the federal government
         faces in responding effectively to natural disasters—both in terms of
         immediate response and long-term recovery efforts. According to FEMA’s
         2017 after action report, the 2017 hurricanes and wildfires collectively
         affected 47 million people, and hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria all
         rank among the top five costliest hurricanes on record. 1 The 2018
         hurricane season followed with hurricanes Florence and Michael, causing
         nearly $50 billion of damage, according to the National Oceanic and
         Atmospheric Administration. Furthermore, the deadly and destructive
         wildfires continued into 2018, including the Camp Fire in northern
         California, which destroyed more than 18,500 buildings and was the
         costliest and deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. 2 In March 2019, the
         Midwest experienced historic flooding that affected millions of acres of
         agriculture, numerous cities and towns, and caused widespread damage
         to public infrastructure. Collectively, these extreme weather events have
         stretched and strained federal response and recovery efforts and staff.

         The rising number of natural disasters and increasing state, local, and
         tribal reliance on federal disaster assistance is a key source of federal
         fiscal exposure—which can come from federal responsibilities, programs,
         and activities, such as national flood insurance, that may legally commit
         or create the expectation for future spending. 3 Since 2005, federal




         1
          According to the 2017 Hurricane Season FEMA After-Action Report, the National
         Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identified the five costliest hurricanes on record
         being Hurricane Katrina at $161 billion, Hurricane Harvey at $125 billion, Hurricane Maria
         at $90 billion, Hurricane Sandy at $71 billion, and Hurricane Irma at $50 billion.
         2
         NOAA, National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar
         Weather and Climate Disasters (2019). https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/
         3
          GAO, Fiscal Exposures: Improving Cost Recognition in the Federal Budget, GAO-14-28
         (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 29, 2013).




         Page 1                                                                        GAO-19-594T
funding for disaster assistance is at least $450 billion 4, most recently for
catastrophic hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, and other losses in 2017 and
2018. 5 Disaster costs are projected to increase as extreme weather
events become more frequent and intense due to climate change—as
observed and projected by the U.S. Global Change Research Program
and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 6

One way to save lives, reduce future risk to people and property, and
minimize federal fiscal exposure from natural hazards is to enhance
disaster resilience. For example, in September 2018, we reported that
elevated homes and strengthened building codes in Texas and Florida
prevented greater damages during the 2017 hurricane season. 7
Furthermore, in October 2018, the DRRA was enacted, which focuses on
improving preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. 8 Specifically,
the DRRA contains provisions that address many areas of emergency
management, including wildfire mitigation, public assistance, and
individual assistance, among others.

My testimony today discusses our prior and ongoing work on FEMA’s
progress and continued challenges in four key areas: (1) resilience and
4
 This total includes, for fiscal years 2005 through 2014, $278 billion that GAO found that
the federal government had obligated for disaster assistance. See GAO, Federal Disaster
Assistance: Federal Departments and Agencies Obligated at Least $277.6 Billion during
Fiscal Years 2005 through 2014, GAO-16-797 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 22, 2016). It also
includes, for fiscal years 2015 through 2018, $124 billion in select supplemental
appropriations to federal agencies for disaster assistance, approximately $7 billion in
annual appropriations to the Disaster Relief Fund (a total of $28 billion for the 4-year
period). For fiscal years 2015 through 2018, it does not include other annual
appropriations to federal agencies for disaster assistance. Lastly, on June 6, 2019, the
Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019 was signed into
law, which provides approximately $19.1 billion for disaster assistance. H.R. 2157, 116th
Cong. (2019) (enacted).
5
 GAO, High-Risk Series: Substantial Efforts Needed to Achieve Greater Progress on
High-Risk Areas, GAO-19-157SP (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 6, 2019).
6
 GAO, Climate Change: Information on Potential Economic Effects Could Help Guide
Federal Efforts to Reduce Fiscal Exposure, GAO-17-720 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 28,
2017). Managing fiscal exposure due to climate change has been on our high risk list
since 2013, in part, because of concerns about the increasing costs of disaster response
and recovery efforts. See GAO-19-157SP; also
http://www.gao.gov/highrisk/limiting_federal_government_fiscal_exposure/why_did_study.
7
 GAO, 2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires: Initial Observations on the Federal Response and
Key Recovery Challenges, GAO-18-472 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 4, 2018).
8
Pub. L. No. 115-254, div. D, 132 Stat. 3186, 3438-70 (2018).




Page 2                                                                        GAO-19-594T
preparedness, (2) response, (3) recovery, and (4) selected FEMA
management issues. My statement today is based on products we issued
from March 2011 through May 2019, along with preliminary observations
from our ongoing reviews on federal disaster preparedness, response,
recovery, and FEMA management issues for a number of congressional
committees and subcommittees. 9 To perform our prior work, we reviewed
federal laws related to emergency management, analyzed FEMA
documentation, and interviewed relevant agency officials. More detailed
information on the scope and methodology for our prior work can be
found in each of the issued reports listed in Enclosure I. To develop our
preliminary observations from ongoing work, we reviewed federal laws
such as the DRRA, and analyzed FEMA documents, including policies,
procedures, and guidance specific to emergency management. Moreover,
we conducted site visits to areas throughout the nation that were affected
by disasters in 2017, 2018, and 2019, including California, Florida, North
Carolina, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands
(USVI). During these visits, we met with federal, state, territorial, and local
government and emergency management officials to discuss disaster
response and recovery efforts for hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in
2017, the California wildfires, and hurricanes Florence and Michael in
2018. See the list of our ongoing reviews in Enclosure II.

We conducted the work on which this statement is based in accordance
with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards
require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate
evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions
based on our audit objectives. We believe that the evidence obtained
provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on
our audit objectives.




9
 Our ongoing work is for the House Committee on Homeland Security, House Committee
on Oversight and Government Reform, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental
Affairs Committee, and seven additional committees and subcommittees, and four
individual members.




Page 3                                                                 GAO-19-594T
                       We have previously reported on various aspects of national
FEMA Has Taken         preparedness, including examining the extent to which FEMA programs
Steps to Strengthen    encourage disaster resilience and identifying gaps in federal
                       preparedness capabilities. We have found that when federal, state, and
Disaster Resilience    local efforts aligned to focus on improving disaster resilience and
and Preparedness,      preparedness, there was a noticeable reduction in the effects of the
                       disaster. However, our prior and ongoing work also highlight opportunities
but Additional Steps   to improve disaster resilience and preparedness nationwide. 10
are Needed to Fully
Address Remaining
Challenges
Disaster Resilience    Hazard mitigation is a key step in building resilience and preparedness
                       against future disasters. 11 In July 2015, we found that states and localities
                       experienced challenges when trying to use federal funds to maximize
                       resilient rebuilding in the wake of a disaster. 12 In particular, they had
                       difficulty navigating multiple federal grant programs and applying federal
                       resources towards their most salient risks because of the fragmented and
                       reactionary nature of the funding. 13 In our 2015 report, we recommended
                       that the Mitigation Framework Leadership group—an interagency body
                       chaired by FEMA—create a National Mitigation Investment Strategy to
                       help federal, state, and local officials plan for and prioritize disaster
                       resilience. As of May 2019, according to FEMA officials, the Mitigation
                       Framework Leadership group is on track to address the recommendation,
                       and they expect the strategy to be published by July 2019.

                       10
                         For example, see: GAO, Hurricane Sandy: An Investment Strategy Could Help the
                       Federal Government Enhance National Resilience for Future Disasters, GAO-15-515
                       (Washington, D.C.: July 30, 2015); Emergency Preparedness: Opportunities Exist to
                       Strengthen Interagency Assessments and Accountability for Closing Capability Gaps,
                       GAO-15-20 (Washington, D.C.: Dec. 4, 2014); and GAO-18-472.
                       11
                         FEMA’s 2018-2022 Strategic Plan states that the most successful way to achieve
                       disaster resilience is through preparedness, including mitigation.
                       12
                        GAO-15-515.
                       13
                         GAO-15-515. A provision of DRRA also created a grant in the Disaster Relief Fund for
                       pre-disaster hazard mitigation. DRRA authorized the President to set aside 6 percent of
                       the total grant awards for the Individual Assistance and Public Assistance programs (each
                       discussed later in this statement) for each declared disaster to be used for pre-disaster
                       hazard mitigation. From May 20 through July 15, 2019, FEMA is collecting public
                       comment on the implementation of this provision through a program it has named the
                       Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant. 42 U.S.C. § 5133(i).




                       Page 4                                                                       GAO-19-594T
In September 2017, we reported that the methods used to estimate the
potential economic effects of climate change in the United States—using
linked climate science and economics models—could inform decision
makers about significant potential damages in different U.S. sectors or
regions, despite the limitations. 14 For example, for 2020 through 2039,
one study estimated between $4 billion and $6 billion in annual coastal
property damages from sea level rise and more frequent and intense
storms. We found that the federal government has not undertaken
strategic government-wide planning on the potential economic effects of
climate change to identify significant risks and craft appropriate federal
responses. As a result, we recommended the Executive Office of the
President, among others, should use information on the potential
economic effects of climate change to help identify significant climate
risks facing the federal government and craft appropriate federal
responses, such as establishing a strategy to identify, prioritize, and guide
federal investments to enhance resilience against future disasters;
however, as of June 2019, officials have not taken action to address this
recommendation.

In November 2017, we found that FEMA had taken some actions to better
promote hazard mitigation as part of its Public Assistance grant
program. 15 However, we also reported that more consistent planning for,
and more specific performance measures related to, hazard mitigation
could help ensure that mitigation is incorporated into recovery efforts. 16
We recommended, among other things, that FEMA (1) standardize
planning efforts for hazard mitigation after a disaster and (2) develop
performance measures for the Public Assistance grant program to better
align with FEMA’s strategic goal for hazard mitigation in the recovery
process. FEMA concurred with our recommendations, and as of March
2019, officials have reported taking steps to increase coordination across
its Public Assistance, mitigation, and field operations to ensure hazard
mitigation efforts are standardized and integrated into the recovery
process. Additionally, FEMA officials reported taking actions to begin

14
  GAO-17-720.
15
  In addition to rebuilding and restoring infrastructure to its pre-disaster state, the Public
Assistance program, under Section 406 of the Stafford Act, funds mitigation measures that
will reduce future risk to the infrastructure in conjunction with the repair of disaster-
damaged facilities. 42 U.S.C. § 5172.
16
 GAO, Disaster Assistance: Opportunities to Enhance Implementation of the Redesigned
Public Assistance Grant Program, GAO-18-30 (Washington, D.C.: Nov. 8, 2017).




Page 5                                                                          GAO-19-594T
                        developing disaster-specific mitigation performance measures. However,
                        FEMA has yet to finalize these actions, such as by proposing
                        performance measures to FEMA senior leadership. As such, we are
                        continuing to monitor FEMA’s efforts to address these recommendations.


Disaster Preparedness   In March 2011, we reported that FEMA had not completed a
                        comprehensive and measurable national preparedness assessment of
                        capability gaps—for example the amount of resources required to save
                        lives, protect property and the environment, and meet basic human needs
                        after an incident has occurred. 17 Developing such an assessment would
                        help FEMA to identify what capability gaps exist and what level of
                        resources are needed to close such gaps. Accordingly, we suggested that
                        FEMA complete a national preparedness assessment to evaluate
                        capability requirements and gaps at each level of government to enable
                        FEMA to prioritize grant funding. 18 As of December 2018, FEMA had
                        efforts underway to assess urban area, state, territory, and tribal
                        preparedness capabilities to inform the prioritization of grant funding;
                        however, the agency had not yet completed a national preparedness
                        assessment with clear, objective, and quantifiable capability requirements
                        against which to assess preparedness. We are continuing to monitor
                        FEMA’s efforts to complete such an assessment.

                        Furthermore, in March 2015, we reviewed selected states’ approaches to
                        budgeting for disaster costs to help inform congressional consideration of
                        the balance between federal and state roles in funding disaster
                        assistance. Specifically, we reported that none of the 10 states in our
                        review maintained reserves dedicated solely for future disasters, and
                        some state officials reported that they could cover disaster costs without
                        dedicated disaster reserves because they generally relied on the federal
                        government to fund most of the costs associated with disaster response
                        and recovery. 19


                        17
                          GAO, Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs Save Tax
                        Dollars and Enhance Revenue, GAO-11-318SP (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 1, 2011).
                        18
                         GAO-11-318SP.
                        19
                          GAO, Budgeting for Disasters: Approaches to Budgeting for Disasters in Selected
                        States, GAO-15-424 (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 26, 2015).The 10 states in our review were
                        Alaska, California, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma,
                        Vermont, and West Virginia.




                        Page 6                                                                    GAO-19-594T
                      In response to the 2017 disasters, we also have ongoing work to review
                      national preparedness capabilities to assist communities in responding to
                      and recovering from disasters. Based on our preliminary observations,
                      some states and localities we interviewed reported that while they are
                      prepared to deal with immediate response issues in the aftermath of a
                      disaster, gaps exist in their capacity to support longer term recovery. One
                      reason for this, according to these state and local officials, is because
                      federal preparedness grant funds are largely dedicated to maintaining
                      response capabilities and sustaining personnel costs for local emergency
                      management officials. While these preparedness grants fund critical
                      elements of the national preparedness system, there are some limitations
                      to using them. Specifically, some state and local officials told us that the
                      preparedness grant activities are generally focused on terrorism issues
                      rather than all-hazards. In addition, they reported that the preparedness
                      grants are generally spent on maintaining response capabilities rather
                      than to enhance their capacity for disaster recovery—such as additional
                      training and exercises. In addition to the state, territory, and urban region
                      assessments that FEMA is conducting, FEMA is currently in the process
                      of developing the first national Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk
                      Assessment. This national assessment may help FEMA and
                      policymakers better understand how to target federal resources in a way
                      that enhances the nation’s capacity to respond and recover from future
                      catastrophic or sequential disasters. We are continuing to evaluate
                      national preparedness efforts and plan to report on FEMA’s Threat and
                      Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment process in January 2020.



FEMA’s Response to
the 2017 Disasters
Highlighted Some
Areas of Progress,
But also Identified
Significant
Weaknesses




                      Page 7                                                            GAO-19-594T
FEMA’s Response to the   In September 2018, we reported that the response to the 2017 hurricanes
2017 Disasters           and wildfires in Texas, Florida, and California showed progress made
                         since the 2005 federal response to Hurricane Katrina. 20 We also found
                         that FEMA coordinated closely with Texas, Florida, and California
                         emergency management officials and other federal, local, and volunteer
                         emergency partners to implement various emergency preparedness
                         actions prior to the 2017 disasters in each state, and to respond to these
                         disasters. According to FEMA and state officials, these actions helped
                         officials begin addressing a number of challenges they faced such as
                         meeting the demand for a sufficient and adequately-trained disaster
                         workforce and complex issues related to removing debris in a timely
                         manner after the hurricanes and wildfires.

                         In contrast, we also reported in September 2018, that in Puerto Rico and
                         the USVI a variety of challenges—such as the far distance of the
                         territories from the U.S. mainland, limited local preparedness for a major
                         hurricane, and outdated local infrastructure—complicated response
                         efforts to hurricanes Irma and Maria. Many of the challenges we identified
                         are also described in FEMA’s 2017 Hurricane Season FEMA After-Action
                         Report, including:

                         •     the sequential and overlapping timing of the three hurricanes—with
                               Maria being the last of the three—caused staffing shortages and
                               required FEMA to shift staff to the territories that were already
                               deployed to other disasters;
                         •     the far distance of both territories from the U.S. mainland complicated
                               efforts to deploy federal resources and personnel quickly; and
                         •     the incapacitation of local response functions due to widespread
                               devastation and loss of power and communications, and limited
                               preparedness by Puerto Rico and the USVI for a category 5 hurricane
                               resulted in FEMA having to assume response functions that territories
                               would usually perform themselves.
                         We also reported that FEMA’s 2017 Hurricane Season FEMA After-Action
                         Report noted that FEMA could have better leveraged information from
                         preparedness exercises in the Caribbean, including a 2011 exercise after-
                         action report for Puerto Rico which indicated that the territory would
                         require extensive federal support during a large scale disaster in moving


                         20
                             GAO-18-472.




                         Page 8                                                             GAO-19-594T
commodities from the mainland to the territory and to distribution points
throughout.

In our September 2018 report, we also found that FEMA’s efforts in
Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria were the largest and longest single
response in the agency’s history. According to FEMA, the agency’s
response included, among other things, bringing in approximately $1
billion in food and supplies; and distributing food, commodities, and
medicine via approximately 1,400 flights, which constituted the longest
sustained air operations in U.S. disaster history. 21 FEMA officials
explained that the agency essentially served as the first responder in the
early response efforts in Puerto Rico, and many of services FEMA
provided—such as power restoration, debris removal, and commodity
distribution—were typically provided by territorial or local governments.

We also reported in September 2018, that in the USVI, recent disaster
training and the pre-positioning of supplies due to the anticipated impact
of Hurricane Irma facilitated the response efforts for Hurricane Maria,
which made landfall less than two weeks later. According to FEMA’s
federal coordinating officer, the lead federal official in charge of response
for the USVI, the federal government deployed assets, including urban
search and rescue teams and medical assistance teams. In addition, due
to the sequence of Hurricane Irma hitting the USVI immediately before
Hurricane Maria, the Department of Defense (DOD) already had
personnel and resources (i.e., ships) deployed to the area, which enabled
DOD to respond to Hurricane Maria faster than it otherwise would have.

Additional challenges we have reported on regarding response operations
have included providing short-term housing and sheltering for disaster
survivors. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) 2017 National
Preparedness Report states that providing effective and affordable short-
term housing for disaster survivors has been a longstanding and
continuing challenge. 22 For example, following the California wildfires,
local officials faced challenges identifying shelter for displaced survivors,
in part due to a housing shortage that existed before the wildfires.
Federal, state, and local officials formed housing task forces which
facilitated a joint decision-making approach to address these challenges.

21
 GAO-18-472.
22
 Department of Homeland Security (DHS), National Preparedness Report (Washington,
D.C.: Aug. 28, 2017).




Page 9                                                                 GAO-19-594T
                While this approach has enabled the state to meet its most pressing
                short-term housing needs, according to FEMA officials, the state faces
                other challenges in the long term. 23 For example, FEMA officials in the
                region covering California told us that because of the nature of damage
                following a wildfire and because of housing shortages in California, some
                of FEMA’s forms of housing assistance have been less relevant in the
                wake of the California wildfires than for other disasters. We will continue
                to evaluate these and other challenges and plan to report in fall 2019.

                We also have ongoing work to review efforts to provide mass care—
                which includes sheltering, feeding and providing emergency supplies—
                following the 2017 hurricanes. Our preliminary observations indicate that
                during and immediately following the hurricanes, the number of people
                seeking public shelters outpaced the capacity. In Texas and Florida,
                emergency managers we spoke with described having unprecedented
                numbers of residents needing shelters but not always enough staff initially
                to operate the shelters. In Texas, Puerto Rico, and the USVI, hurricanes
                Harvey, Irma, and Maria flooded or destroyed many buildings planned for
                use as shelters, according to emergency management and local
                government officials in these areas. As a result, some remaining shelters
                were at maximum capacity. In the USVI, residents of some public housing
                units that had sustained significant damages sought help at the territory’s
                Department of Human Services because there was no more space in the
                shelters, according to local government officials. While they were turned
                away from the shelters, these families were able to take refuge in the
                lobby of the Department of Human Services building. We will continue to
                evaluate these and other challenges and plan to report in summer 2019.


FEMA Disaster   In December 2018 24 and April 2019 25, we reported that, in response to
Contracting     hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as well as the 2017 California
                wildfires, FEMA and other federal partners relied heavily on advance
                contracts—which are established before a disaster to provide for life-
                sustaining goods and services such as food, water and transportation

                23
                 GAO-18-472.
                24
                  GAO, 2017 Disaster Contracting: Action Needed to Better Ensure More Effective Use
                and Management of Advance Contracts, GAO-19-93, (Washington, D.C: Dec. 6, 2018).
                25
                  GAO, 2017 Disaster Contracting: Actions Needed to Improve the Use of Post-Disaster
                Contracts to Support Response and Recovery, GAO-19-281, (Washington, D.C: April 24,
                2019). The post-disaster contracts discussed in this report may support both response
                and early recovery activities.




                Page 10                                                                   GAO-19-594T
typically needed immediately after a disaster—and post disaster
contracts—which can be used for various goods and services, such as
debris removal and installation of power transmission equipment.

FEMA is required to coordinate with states and localities and encourage
them to establish their own advance contracts with vendors. 26 In
December 2018, we reported on inconsistencies we found in that
coordination and in the information FEMA used to coordinate with states
and localities on advance contracts. As a result of this and other
challenges identified, we made nine recommendations to FEMA,
including that it update its strategy and guidance to clarify the use of
advance contracts, improve the timeliness of its acquisition planning
activities, revise its methodology for reporting disaster contracting actions
to Congress, and provide more consistent guidance and information for
contracting officers in coordinating with states and localities to establish
advance contracts. FEMA concurred with all of these recommendations,
and we are continuing to monitor its efforts to implement each
recommendation.

Furthermore, in April 2019, we reported on challenges that we found in
the federal government’s use of post-disaster contracts. These
challenges included a lack of transparency about contract actions,
challenges with requirements development, and with interagency
coordination. In our report, we found that FEMA had begun taking some
steps to address the consistency of post-disaster contract requirements
with contracting officers, but that inaccurate or untimely estimates in the
contracts we reviewed sometimes resulted in delays meeting the needs of
survivors. As a result of our findings in this report, we made 10
recommendations to FEMA and other federal agencies that use these
post-disaster contracts related to improving the management of such
contracts. FEMA and other agency officials concurred with nine of the
recommendations and have reported taking actions to begin




26
  The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (Post-Katrina Act)
required FEMA to establish advance contracts Pub. L. No. 109-295, § 691, 120 Stat. 1355
(codified at 6 U.S.C. § 791).




Page 11                                                                    GAO-19-594T
                         implementing them. 27 We will continue to monitor FEMA’s progress in
                         fully addressing these recommendations.


                         FEMA provides multiple forms of disaster recovery assistance after a
FEMA Provides Long       major disaster has been declared, including Public Assistance and
Term Disaster            Individual Assistance. 28 Through these grant programs, FEMA obligates
                         billions of dollars to state, tribal, territorial, and local governments, certain
Recovery Support,        nonprofit organizations, and individuals that have suffered injury or
but State and Local      damages from major disaster or emergency incidents, such as
                         hurricanes, tornados, or wildfires. In September 2016, we reported that,
Officials Cited          from fiscal years 2005 through 2014, FEMA obligated almost $46 billion
Continued                for the Public Assistance program and over $25 billion for the Individual
                         Assistance program. 29 According to FEMA’s May 2019 Disaster Relief
Challenges Managing      Fund report, total projected obligations through fiscal year 2019 for the
Complex Recovery         Public Assistance and Individual Assistance programs for just the 2017
                         hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—are roughly $16 billion and $7
Assistance Programs      billion, respectively. 30 Given the high cost of these programs, it is
                         imperative that FEMA continue to make progress on the challenges we
                         have identified in our prior and ongoing work regarding its recovery
                         efforts.


FEMA Public Assistance   FEMA’s Public Assistance program provides grants to state, tribal,
Grants for Disaster      territorial, and local governments for debris removal; emergency
                         protective measures; and the repair, replacement, or restoration of
Recovery
                         disaster-damaged, publicly owned facilities. It is a complex and multistep
                         program administered through a partnership among FEMA, the state, and

                         27
                           DHS did not concur with our recommendation that DHS reopen the national interest
                         action codes used to track data on post-disaster contracts involved in responding to the
                         2017 and 2018 hurricanes. These codes can provide government-wide insight into
                         response and recovery efforts; however, DHS closed the codes for hurricanes Harvey and
                         Irma less than a year after the hurricanes hit. In contrast, the codes for prior hurricanes
                         were open for at least 5 years, with the code for Hurricane Katrina remaining open for 13
                         years. We continue to believe DHS should implement our recommendation, to the extent
                         practicable, as discussed in the report.
                         28
                            In addition, FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program provides additional funds to states
                         to assist communities in implementing long-term measures to help reduce the potential
                         risk of future damages to facilities.
                         29
                          GAO-16-797.
                         30
                          DHS, FEMA, Disaster Relief fund: Monthly Report as of April 30, 2019, (May 8, 2019).




                         Page 12                                                                       GAO-19-594T
local officials. Prior to implementing the Public Assistance program,
FEMA determines a state, territorial or tribal government’s eligibility for
the program using the per capita damage indicator. 31 In our September
2018 report on federal response and recovery efforts for the 2017
hurricanes and wildfires, we reported on FEMA’s implementation of the
Public Assistance program, which has recently undergone significant
changes as a result of federal legislation and agency initiatives.
Specifically, we reported on FEMA’s use of its redesigned delivery model
for providing grants under the Public Assistance program, as well as the
alternative procedures for administering or receiving such grant funds that
FEMA allows states, territories, and local governments to use for their
recovery. 32 Our prior and ongoing work highlights both progress and
challenges with FEMA’s Public Assistance program, including the
agency’s methodology for determining program eligibility, the redesigned
delivery model, and the program’s alternative procedures.




31
  The per capita indicator is a set amount of funding, $1.50 per capita in fiscal year 2019,
that is multiplied by the population of the jurisdiction (for example, state) for which the
governor is requesting a disaster declaration for Public Assistance, to arrive at a threshold
amount, which is compared with the estimated amount of damage done to public
structures.
32
  GAO-18-472. The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 amended the Stafford Act
by adding Section 428, which authorized FEMA to approve Public Assistance program
projects under the alternative procedures provided by that section for any presidentially-
declared major disaster or emergency. This section further authorized FEMA to carry out
the alternative procedures as a pilot program until FEMA promulgates regulations to
implement this section. Pub. L. No. 113-2, div. B, § 1102(2), 127 Stat. 39, amending Pub.
L. No. 93-288, tit. IV, § 428 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 5189f).




Page 13                                                                         GAO-19-594T
Criteria for Determining Public   In September 2012, we found that FEMA primarily relied on a single
Assistance Eligibility            criterion, the per capita damage indicator, to determine a jurisdiction’s
                                  eligibility for Public Assistance funding. 33 However, because FEMA’s
                                  current per capita indicator, set at $1 in 1986, does not reflect the rise in
                                  (1) per capita personal income since it was created in 1986 or (2) inflation
                                  from 1986 to 1999, the indicator is artificially low. Our analysis of actual
                                  and projected obligations for 508 disaster declarations in which Public
                                  Assistance was awarded during fiscal years 2004 through 2011 showed
                                  that fewer disasters would have met either the personal income-adjusted
                                  or the inflation-adjusted Public Assistance per capita indicators for the
                                  years in which the disaster was declared. 34 Thus, had the indicator been
                                  adjusted annually since 1986 for personal income or inflation, fewer
                                  jurisdictions would have met the eligibility criteria that FEMA primarily
                                  used to determine whether federal assistance should be provided, which
                                  would have likely resulted in fewer disaster declarations and lower federal
                                  costs.

                                  We recommended, among other things, that FEMA develop and
                                  implement a methodology that that more comprehensively assesses a
                                  jurisdiction’s capacity to respond to and recover from a disaster without
                                  federal assistance, including fiscal capacity and consideration of
                                  response and recovery capabilities. DHS concurred with our
                                  recommendation and, in January 2016, FEMA was considering
                                  establishing a disaster deductible, which would have required a
                                  predetermined level of financial or other commitment before FEMA would
                                  have provided assistance under the Public Assistance program. In August
                                  2018, FEMA told us that it was no longer pursuing its proposed disaster
                                  deductible due to concerns about the complexity of the proposal. FEMA is
                                  considering options that leverage similar approaches, but does not have
                                  an estimated completion date for implementation. In addition, the DRRA
                                  requires FEMA to initiate rulemaking to (1) update the factors considered
                                  when evaluating requests for major disaster declarations, including
                                  reviewing how FEMA estimates the cost of major disaster assistance, and

                                  33
                                    GAO, Federal Disaster Assistance: Improved Criteria Needed to Assess a Jurisdiction’s
                                  Capability to Respond and Recover on Its Own, GAO-12-838 (Washington, D.C.: Sept.
                                  12, 2012).
                                  34
                                    Specifically, our analysis showed that 44 percent of the 508 disaster declarations would
                                  not have met the Public Assistance per capita indicator if adjusted for the change in per
                                  capita personal income since 1986. Similarly, our analysis showed that 25 percent of the
                                  508 disaster declarations would not have met the Public Assistance per capita indicator if
                                  adjusted for inflation since 1986.




                                  Page 14                                                                       GAO-19-594T
                               (2) consider other impacts on the capacity of a jurisdiction to respond to
                               disasters, by October 2020. Until FEMA implements a new methodology,
                               the agency will not have an accurate assessment of a jurisdiction’s
                               capabilities and runs the risk of recommending that the President award
                               Public Assistance to jurisdictions that have the capacity to respond and
                               recover on their own.

Redesigned Public Assistance   Prior to our September 2018 report, we had previously reported on the
Delivery Model                 Public Assistance program in November 2017. Specifically, we reported
                               that FEMA redesigned the delivery model for providing grants under the
                               Public Assistance program. 35 As part of the redesign effort, FEMA
                               developed a new, web-based case management system to address past
                               challenges, such as difficulties in sharing grant documentation among
                               FEMA, state, and local officials and tracking the status of Public
                               Assistance projects. Both FEMA and state officials involved in testing of
                               the redesigned delivery model stated that the new case management
                               system’s capabilities could lead to greater transparency and efficiencies
                               in the program. However, we found that FEMA had not fully addressed
                               two key information technology management controls that are necessary
                               to ensure systems work effectively and meet user needs. We
                               recommended, among other things, that FEMA (1) establish controls for
                               tracking the development of system requirements, and (2) establish
                               system testing criteria, roles and responsibilities, and the sequence and
                               schedule for integration of other relevant systems. FEMA concurred with
                               these recommendations and has fully implemented the first
                               recommendation. Regarding the second recommendation, FEMA has not
                               yet finalized its decision on whether to integrate its new case
                               management system with its current grants management system. As of
                               March 2019, we are awaiting a final decision from officials to determine
                               whether their actions fully address our recommendation.

                               FEMA’s original intention was to implement the redesigned delivery
                               model for all future disasters beginning in January 2018. However, in
                               September 2017, FEMA expedited full implementation of the redesigned
                               model shortly after Hurricane Harvey made landfall. In September 2018,
                               we reported that local officials continued to experience challenges with
                               using the new Public Assistance web-based, case management system
                               following the 2017 disasters, such as not having sufficient guidance on

                               35
                                GAO, Disaster Assistance: Opportunities to Enhance Implementation of the Redesigned
                               Public Assistance Grant Program, GAO-18-30 (Washington, D.C.: Nov. 8, 2017).




                               Page 15                                                                 GAO-19-594T
                                how to use the new system and delays with FEMA’s processing of their
                                projects. 36

Public Assistance Alternative   In February 2019, we also reported that FEMA and the USVI were
Procedures in the United        transitioning from using the standard Public Assistance program to using
States Virgin Islands and       Public Assistance alternative procedures. 37 FEMA and USVI officials
Puerto Rico                     stated that the alternative procedures will give the USVI more flexibility in
                                determining when and how to fund projects and allow the territory to use
                                any excess funds for cost-effective hazard mitigation measures, among
                                other uses. Further, when using the alternative procedures, the Bipartisan
                                Budget Act of 2018 allows FEMA, the USVI and Puerto Rico to repair and
                                rebuild critical services infrastructure—such as medical and education
                                facilities—so it meets industry standards without regard to pre-disaster
                                condition (see Figure 1). 38




                                36
                                  GAO-18-472.
                                37
                                  Under the standard Public Assistance program, FEMA will fund the actual cost of a
                                project. However, the Public Assistance alternative procedures allow recipient
                                governments to choose to receive awards for permanent work projects based on fixed
                                cost estimates, which can provide financial incentives for the timely and cost-effective
                                completion of work. GAO, U.S. Virgin Islands Recovery: Status of FEMA Public
                                Assistance Funding and Implementation, GAO-19-253 (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 25, 2019).
                                38
                                  The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 authorized FEMA, when using the Public Assistance
                                alternative procedures, to provide assistance to fund the replacement or restoration of
                                disaster-damaged infrastructure that provide critical services to industry standards without
                                regard to pre-disaster condition. Pub. L. No. 115-123, § 20601(1), 132 Stat. 64 (2018).
                                Critical services include public infrastructure in the following sectors: power, water, sewer,
                                wastewater treatment, communications, education, and emergency medical care. See 42
                                U.S.C. § 5172(a)(3)(B). Section 20601 applies only to assistance provided through the
                                Public Assistance alternative procedures program for the duration of the recovery for the
                                major disasters declared in Puerto Rico and the USVI following hurricanes Irma and
                                Maria. Further, the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019,
                                which was signed into law on June 6, 2019, provides additional direction to FEMA in the
                                implementation of section 20601. See H.R. 2157, 116th Cong. § 601 (2019) (enacted).
                                For the purposes of our report, discussion of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 refers
                                specifically to section 20601.




                                Page 16                                                                          GAO-19-594T
Figure 1: Hurricane Damage to a Hospital in the U.S. Virgin Islands and School in Puerto Rico




                                         Regarding the implementation of the Public Assistance program in Puerto
                                         Rico, in March 2019, we reported that Puerto Rico established a central
                                         recovery office to oversee federal recovery funds and was developing an
                                         internal controls plan to help ensure better management and
                                         accountability of the funds. 39 In the interim, FEMA instituted a manual
                                         process for reviewing each reimbursement request before providing
                                         Public Assistance funds to mitigate risk and help ensure financial
                                         accountability. We also reported that officials we interviewed from FEMA,
                                         Puerto Rico’s central recovery office, and municipalities said they
                                         experienced initial challenges with the recovery process, including
                                         concerns about lack of experience and knowledge of the alternative
                                         procedures; concerns about missing, incomplete, or conflicting guidance
                                         on the alternative procedures; and concerns that municipalities had not
                                         been fully reimbursed for work already completed after the hurricanes,
                                         causing financial hardships in some municipalities. 40 FEMA officials

                                         39
                                           GAO, Puerto Rico Hurricanes: Status of FEMA Funding, Oversight, and Recovery
                                         Challenges, GAO-19-256 (Washington, D.C.: March 14, 2019).
                                         40
                                           GAO-19-256.




                                         Page 17                                                                 GAO-19-594T
stated that the agency is taking actions to address reported recovery
challenges, such as additional training for new FEMA employees and
drafting supplemental guidance for the alternative procedures process.
We continue to monitor FEMA’s efforts in our ongoing work.

As part of our ongoing work, we are continuing to examine hurricane
recovery efforts in the USVI and Puerto Rico. Our preliminary
observations indicate that the USVI plans to take a cautious approach in
pursuing permanent work projects using the Public Assistance alternative
procedures program, which requires the use of fixed-cost estimates.
Specifically, USVI officials we interviewed told us that developing such
fixed-cost estimates that accurately incorporate the future impact of
inflation and increases in materials and labor costs for certain projects
was difficult. Further, these officials stated that since the territory is
financially responsible for any costs that exceed these fixed-cost
estimates, the USVI plans to pursue projects that do not include high
levels of complexity or uncertainty to reduce the risk of cost overruns. 41

From our ongoing work on Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts, we have
learned that, in March 2019, Puerto Rico’s central recovery office
released the Disaster Recovery Federal Funds Management Guide,
including an internal controls plan for the operation of the recovery office.
On April 1, 2019, FEMA removed the manual reimbursement process and
began a transition to allow the central recovery office to take responsibility
for review and reimbursement approval of federal recovery funds. We will
review this transition process as a part of our ongoing work. Our
preliminary observations also indicate that some of the challenges we
reported in our March 2019 report continue. For example, officials from
Puerto Rico’s central government agencies told us they did not feel they
had sufficient guidance on the FEMA Public Assistance program and
where they did, written and verbal FEMA guidance was inconsistent or
conflicting. For example, officials from one agency expressed their desire
for more FEMA guidance communicated in writing as it frequently
happened that different FEMA officials would interpret existing guidance
differently. Similarly, officials from two agencies described situations
where they had initially been directed to follow one interpretation of a
policy, only to be directed to follow a different, conflicting interpretation in
the subsequent months. Puerto Rico agency officials also stated that the

41
  Under the standard Public Assistance program, FEMA will reimburse the USVI for the
actual cost of completed work for any given project.




Page 18                                                                   GAO-19-594T
                  lack of sufficient instruction led to a “back and forth” with FEMA for
                  clarifications, which led to delays in the phases of project development.
                  FEMA officials in Puerto Rico stated that the agency has developed
                  specific guidance for disaster recovery in Puerto Rico and that there are
                  various ways, such as in-person meetings, where officials from Puerto
                  Rico can obtain clarification. We are continuing to examine this issue as
                  part of our ongoing review of Puerto Rico’s recovery.

                  In addition, our preliminary observations from our ongoing work for both
                  the USVI and Puerto Rico indicate that FEMA, USVI and Puerto Rico
                  officials have reported challenges with the implementation of the
                  flexibilities authorized by section 20601 of the Bipartisan Budget Act. This
                  section of the Act allows for the provision of assistance under the Public
                  Assistance alternative procedures to restore disaster-damaged facilities
                  or systems that provide critical services to an industry standard without
                  regard to pre-disaster condition. Officials from Puerto Rico’s central
                  government stated that they disagreed with FEMA’s interpretation of the
                  types of damages covered by section 20601 of the Bipartisan Budget Act
                  of 2018. In response, FEMA officials in Puerto Rico stated they held
                  several briefings with Puerto Rico’s central recovery office to explain
                  FEMA’s interpretation of the section. 42 Further, FEMA officials in the USVI
                  told us that initially, they had difficulty obtaining clarification from FEMA
                  headquarters regarding how to implement key components of section
                  20601 of the Act. As of May 2019, FEMA officials in the USVI stated that
                  they continue to move forward with developing alternative procedures
                  projects. USVI officials also told us that FEMA had been responsive and
                  helpful in identifying its options for using the new authorities the Act
                  provides. We will continue to evaluate these identified challenges and any
                  efforts to address them, as well as other aspects of recovery efforts in the
                  USVI and Puerto Rico, and plan to report our findings in late 2019 and
                  early 2020, respectively.


FEMA Individual   The Individual Assistance program provides financial and direct
Assistance        assistance to disaster victims for expenses and needs that cannot be met
                  through other means, such as insurance. In May 2019, we reported on
                  FEMA’s effort to provide disaster assistance under the Individual
                  Assistance program to older adults and people with disabilities following
                  42
                    In September 2018, FEMA issued guidance for implementing section 20601 of the 2018
                  Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 through the Public Assistance alternative procedures
                  program.




                  Page 19                                                                 GAO-19-594T
the 2017 hurricanes. 43 We found that aspects of the application process
for FEMA assistance were challenging for older individuals and those with
disabilities. Further, according to stakeholders and FEMA officials,
disability-related questions in the Individual Assistance registration
materials were confusing and easily misinterpreted. While FEMA had
made some efforts to help registrants interpret the questions, we
recommended, among other things, that FEMA (1) implement new
registration-intake questions that improve FEMA’s ability to identify and
address survivors’ disability-related needs, 44 and (2) improve
communication of registrants’ disability-related information across FEMA
programs. DHS concurred with the first recommendation and described
steps FEMA plans to take, or is in the process of taking, to address it.
However, DHS did not concur with the second recommendation, noting
that it lacks specific funding to augment its legacy data systems. FEMA
officials stated that they began a long-term data management
improvement initiative in April 2017, which they expect will ease efforts to
share and flag specific disability-related data. While we acknowledge
FEMA’s concerns about changing legacy systems when it has existing
plans to replace those systems, we continue to believe there are other
cost-effective ways that are likely to improve communication of
registrants’ disability-related information prior to implementing the system
upgrades. For example, FEMA could revise its guidance to remind
program officials to review the survivor case file notes to identify whether
there is a record of any disability-related needs.

We also have work underway to assess FEMA’s Individuals and
Households Program, a component program of Individual Assistance.
Through this program, as of April 2019, FEMA had awarded roughly $4.7
billion in assistance to almost 1.8 million individuals and households for
federally-declared disasters occurring in 2017 and 2018. Specifically, we
are analyzing Individuals and Households Program expenditures and
registration data for recent years; reviewing FEMA’s processes, policies,
and procedures for making eligibility and award determinations; and

43
 GAO, Disaster Assistance: FEMA Action Needed to Better Support Individuals Who Are
Older or Have Disabilities, GAO-19-318 (Washington, D.C.: May 14, 2019).
44
  For the purposes of this report, we used the term “disability-related needs” broadly to
include all needs individuals may have that are related to a disability or access or
functional need. For example, this may include replacement of a damaged wheelchair or
other durable medical equipment, fixing an accessible ramp to a house, or any needed
assistance to perform daily activities—such as showering, getting dressed, walking, and
eating.




Page 20                                                                       GAO-19-594T
                        examining survivors’ reported experiences with this program, including
                        any challenges, for major disaster declarations occurring in recent years.
                        We plan to report our findings in early 2020.



Longstanding
Workforce
Management and
Information
Technology
Challenges
Exacerbate Key
Issues with Response
and Recovery
Operations
FEMA Workforce          FEMA’s experiences during the 2017 disasters highlight the importance of
Management Challenges   continuing to make progress on addressing the long-standing workforce
                        management challenges we have previously reported on and continue to
                        observe in our ongoing work. In September 2018, we reported that the
                        2017 disasters—hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as well as the
                        California wildfires—resulted in unprecedented FEMA workforce
                        management challenges, including recruiting, maintaining, and deploying
                        a sufficient and adequately-trained FEMA disaster workforce. 45 FEMA’s
                        available workforce was overwhelmed by the response needs caused by
                        the sequential and overlapping timing of the three hurricanes. For
                        example, at the height of FEMA workforce deployments in October 2017,
                        54 percent of staff were serving in a capacity in which they did not hold
                        the title of “Qualified”—according to FEMA’s qualification system
                        standards—a past challenge we identified. FEMA officials noted that staff
                        shortages, and lack of trained personnel with program expertise led to
                        complications in its response efforts, particularly after Hurricane Maria.



                        45
                         GAO-18-472.




                        Page 21                                                         GAO-19-594T
In February 2016, we reported on, among other things, FEMA’s efforts to
implement, assess, and improve its Incident Management Assistance
Team program. 46 We found that while FEMA used some leading practices
in managing the program, it lacked a standardized plan to ensure that all
national and regional Incident Management Assistance Team members
received required training. Further, we found that the program had
experienced high attrition since its implementation in fiscal year 2013. We
recommended, among other things, that FEMA develop (1) a plan to
ensure that Incident Management Assistance Teams receive required
training, and (2) a workforce strategy for retaining Incident Management
Assistance Team staff. DHS concurred with the recommendations. FEMA
fully implemented our first recommendation by developing an Incident
Management Assistance Team Training and Readiness Manual and
providing a training schedule for fiscal year 2017. In response to the
second recommendation, FEMA officials stated in July 2018 that they
plan to develop policies that will provide guidance on a new workforce
structure, incentives for Incident Management Assistance Team
personnel, and pay-for-performance and all other human resource
actions. We are continuing to monitor FEMA’s efforts to address this
recommendation.

In November and December 2017, we reported on staffing challenges in
FEMA’s Public Assistance program. In November 2017, we reported on
FEMA’s efforts to address past workforce management challenges
through its redesigned Public Assistance delivery model. 47 As part of the
redesign effort, FEMA created consolidated resource centers to
standardize and centralize Public Assistance staff responsible for
managing grant applications, and new specialized positions to ensure
more consistent guidance to applicants. However, we found that FEMA
had not assessed the workforce needed to fully implement the redesigned
model, such as the number of staff needed to fill certain new positions, or
to achieve staffing goals. Further, in December 2017, we reported on
FEMA’s management of its Public Assistance appeals process, including

46
  The three national and 13 regional Incident Management Assistance Teams are
comprised of FEMA emergency management staff in areas such as operations, logistics,
planning, and finance and administration. These teams are among the first FEMA officials
to arrive at the affected jurisdiction and provide leadership to identify what federal support
may be required to respond to the incident, among other things. GAO, Disaster Response:
FEMA Has Made Progress Implementing Key Programs, but Opportunities for
Improvement Exist, GAO-16-87, (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 5, 2016).
47
  GAO-18-30.




Page 22                                                                         GAO-19-594T
that FEMA increased staffing levels for the appeals process from 2015 to
2017. 48 However, we found that FEMA continued to face a number of
workforce challenges, such as staff vacancies, turnover, and delays in
training, which contributed to processing delays.

Based on our findings from our November and December 2017 reports,
we recommended, among other things, that FEMA (1) complete
workforce staffing assessments that identify the appropriate number of
staff needed to implement the redesigned Public Assistance delivery
model, and (2) document steps for hiring, training, and retaining key
appeals staff, and address staff transitions resulting from deployments to
disasters. FEMA concurred with our recommendations to address
workforce management challenges in the Public Assistance program and
have reported taking some actions in response. For example, to address
the first recommendation, FEMA officials have developed preliminary
models and estimates of staffing needs across various programs,
including Public Assistance, and plan to reevaluate the appropriate
number of staff needed and present recommendations to senior
leadership by the end of June 2019. To address the second
recommendation, FEMA has collected information on the amount of time
regional appeals analysts spend on appeals, and the inventory and
timeliness of different types of appeals. FEMA officials stated in
September 2018 that they plan to assess this information to prepare a
detailed regional workforce plan. As of June 2019, we are evaluating
plans and documents provided by FEMA to determine whether they have
fully addressed this recommendation.

In our March 2019 report on the status of recovery efforts in Puerto Rico,
we also reported Puerto Rico officials’ concerns about FEMA staff
turnover and lack of knowledge among FEMA staff about how the Public
Assistance alternative procedures are to be applied in Puerto Rico. 49 As
part of our ongoing work, we are continuing to examine recovery efforts in
Puerto Rico. Our preliminary observations indicate that the concerns we
reported on in our March 2019 report continue. For example, Puerto Rico
agency officials said that the lack of continuity in FEMA personnel has
been a challenge for communication and project development. Further,

48
  GAO, Disaster Recovery: Additional Actions Would Improve Data Quality and
Timeliness of FEMA’s Public Assistance Appeals Processing, GAO-18-143, (Washington,
D.C.: Dec. 15, 2018).
49
 GAO-19-256.




Page 23                                                                 GAO-19-594T
officials from all seven Puerto Rico government agencies we interviewed
felt that the FEMA staff they interacted with did not have a complete
understanding of FEMA processes and policies. We are continuing to
evaluate FEMA’s recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and plan to issue our
findings in late 2019.

In April 2019, we reported on the federal government’s contracting efforts
for preparedness, response, and recovery efforts related to the 2017
hurricanes and California wildfires. 50 We found, among other things, that
contracting workforce shortages continue to be a challenge for disaster
response and recovery. Further, although FEMA’s 2017 after-action
report recommended increasing contract support capacities, it did not
provide a specific plan to do so. We also found that while FEMA
evaluated its contracting workforce needs in a 2014 workforce analysis, it
did not specifically consider contracting workforce needs in the regional
offices or address Disaster Acquisition Response Team employees. 51 In
our April 2019 report, we recommended, among other things, that FEMA
assess its workforce needs—including staffing levels, mission needs, and
skill gaps—for contracting staff, to include regional offices and Disaster
Acquisition Response Teams, and develop a plan, including timelines, to
address any gaps. FEMA concurred with this recommendation and
estimates that it will implement it in September 2019.

In our May 2019 report on FEMA disaster assistance to older adults and
people with disabilities following the 2017 hurricanes, we found that
FEMA began implementing a new approach to assist individuals with
disabilities in June 2018, which shifted the responsibility for directly
assisting individuals with disabilities from Disability Integration Advisors—
which are staff FEMA deploys specifically to identify and recommend
actions needed to support survivors with disabilities—to all FEMA staff. 52
To implement this new approach, FEMA planned to train all of the
agency’s deployable staff and staff in programmatic offices on disability
issues during response and recovery deployments. According to FEMA, a
number of Disability Integration Advisors would also deploy to advise
FEMA leadership in the field during disaster response and recovery. We
found that while FEMA has taken some initial steps to provide training on
50
 GAO-19-281.
51
  The primary purpose of Disaster Acquisition Response Team employees is to support
contract administration for disasters.
52
 GAO-19-318.




Page 24                                                                  GAO-19-594T
the changes, it has not established a plan for delivering comprehensive
disability-related training to all staff who will be directly interacting with
individuals with disabilities. We recommended, among other things, that
FEMA develop a plan for delivering training to FEMA staff that promotes
competency in disability awareness and includes milestones and
performance measures, and outlines how performance will be monitored.
DHS concurred with this recommendation; however, officials stated that
FEMA is developing a plan to include a disability integration competency
in the guidance provided for all deployable staff, rather than through
training. We will monitor FEMA’s efforts to develop this plan and fully
address our recommendation. 53

In addition to our prior work on FEMA’s workforce management
challenges related to specific programs and functions, we are continuing
to evaluate FEMA’s workforce capacity and training efforts during the
2017 and 2018 disaster seasons. Our preliminary observations indicate
that there were challenges in FEMA’s ability to deploy staff with the right
kinds of skills and training at the right time to best meet the needs of
various disaster events. For example, according to FEMA field leadership
we interviewed, for some of the functions FEMA performs in the field,
FEMA had too few staff with the right technical skills to perform their
missions—such as inspections of damaged properties—efficiently and
effectively. For other functions, these managers also reported that they
had too many staff in the early stages of the disaster, which created
challenges with assigning duties and providing on-the-job training. For
example, some managers reported that they were allocated more staff
than needed in the initial phases of the disaster, but many lacked
experience and were without someone to provide direction and mentoring
to ensure they used their time efficiently and gained competence more
quickly. Groups of FEMA field managers we interviewed told us that
difficulties deploying the right mix of staff with the right skills led to
challenges such as making purchases to support FEMA operations,
problems with properly registering applicants for FEMA programs, or poor
communication with nonfederal partners. Nonetheless, FEMA staff have
noted that, despite any suboptimal circumstances during disaster
response, they aimed to and have been able to find a way to deliver the
mission.

53
  We continue to believe that FEMA should develop a plan that includes how it will deliver
training to promote competency in disability awareness among its staff. The plan for
delivering such training should include milestones, performance measures, and how
performance will be monitored.




Page 25                                                                       GAO-19-594T
                        As part of this ongoing work, FEMA field leadership and managers also
                        reported challenges using agency systems to ensure the availability of the
                        right staff with the right skills in the right place and time. FEMA uses a
                        system called the Deployment Tracking System to, among other things,
                        help identify staff available to be deployed and activate and track
                        deployments. To help gauge the experience level and training needs of its
                        staff, the agency established the FEMA Qualification System (FQS),
                        which is a set of processes and criteria to monitor staff experience in
                        competently performing tasks and completing training that correspond to
                        their job titles. According to the FQS guidance, staff who have been able
                        to demonstrate proficient performance of all the relevant tasks and
                        complete required training receive the designation “qualified,” and are
                        expected to be ready and able to competently fulfill their responsibilities.
                        Those who have not, receive the designation “trainee,” and can be
                        expected to need additional guidance and on-the-job training. FQS
                        designations feed into the Deployment Tracking System as one key
                        variable in how the tracking system deploys staff. Among other
                        challenges with FEMA’s Deployment Tracking System and Qualification
                        System, FEMA managers and staff in the field told us an employee’s
                        recorded qualification status was not a reliable indicator of the level at
                        which deployed personnel would be capable of performing specific duties
                        and responsibilities or their general proficiency in their positions, making it
                        more difficult for managers to know the specialized skills or experience of
                        staff and effectively build teams. We are continuing to assess these and
                        other reported workforce challenges and plan to report our findings in
                        January 2020.


FEMA Information        In April 2019, we reported on FEMA’s Grants Management Modernization
Technology Challenges   program, which is intended to replace the agency’s 10 legacy grants
                        management systems and modernize and streamline the grants
                        management environment. 54 We found that, of six important leading
                        practices for effective business process reengineering and information
                        technology requirements management, FEMA fully implemented four and
                        partially implemented two for the Grants Management Modernization
                        program. The two partially implemented leading practices were (1)
                        establishing plans for implementing new business processes and (2)
                        establishing complete traceability of information technology requirements.

                        54
                         GAO, FEMA Grants Modernization: Improvements Needed to Strengthen Program
                        Management and Cybersecurity, GAO-19-164 (Washington D.C.: April 9, 2019).




                        Page 26                                                             GAO-19-594T
                   In addition, we found that the program’s initial May 2017 cost estimate of
                   about $251 million was generally consistent with leading practices for a
                   reliable, high-quality estimate; however, it no longer reflected the current
                   assumptions about the program at the time of our review. Moreover, the
                   program’s schedule–specifically its final delivery date of September
                   2020—did not reflect leading practices for project schedules, as the date
                   was not informed by a realistic assessment of development activities.
                   Lastly, we found that FEMA fully addressed three and partially addressed
                   two of five key cybersecurity practices. 55 The two partially addressed
                   practices were (1) assessing security controls, and (2) obtaining an
                   authorization to operate the system. We made 8 recommendations to
                   FEMA to implement leading practices related to reengineering processes,
                   managing information technology requirements, scheduling system
                   development activities, and implementing cybersecurity. DHS concurred
                   with all of our recommendations and provided estimated completion dates
                   for implementing each of them through July 2020.


                   Thank you, Chairman Thompson, Ranking Member Rogers and Members
                   of the Committee. This concludes my prepared statement. I would be
                   happy to respond to any question you may have at this time.


                   If you or your staff has any questions concerning this testimony, please
GAO Contact and    contact Christopher P. Currie at (404) 679-1875 or curriec@gao.gov.
Staff              Contact points for our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public
                   Affairs may be found on the last page of this statement. Key contributors
Acknowledgements   to this statement were Joel Aldape (Assistant Director), Amanda R.
                   Parker (Analyst-in-Charge), Matthew T. Lowney, Rebecca Mendelsohn,
                   and David (Ben) Nelson. In addition, Aditi Archer, Bryan Bourgault,
                   Lorraine Ettaro, Aaron Gluck, Kathryn Godfrey, Taylor Hadfield, Eric
                   Hauswirth, Robert (Denton) Herring, Adam Hoffman, Susan Hsu, Sara
                   Kelly, Amy Moran Lowe, Heidi Nielson, Danielle Pakdaman, Sara Pelton,
                   Amanda Prichard, and Johanna Wong made contributions to this
                   statement. Key contributors for the previous work that this is based on are
                   listed in each product.

                   55
                     To conduct these analyses, we assessed FEMA documentation against our Business
                   Process Reengineering Assessment Guide, Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide, and
                   Schedule Assessment Guide, as well as the National Institute of Standards and
                   Technology’s risk management framework and identified key cybersecurity practices,
                   among other leading practices and guidance.




                   Page 27                                                                GAO-19-594T
Enclosure I: Related GAO Products
             Enclosure I: Related GAO Products Previously
             Issued



Previously Issued

             Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs,
             Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue. GAO-11-318SP, March 1,
             2011.

             Federal Disaster Assistance: Improved Criteria Needed to Assess a
             Jurisdiction’s Capability to Respond and Recover on Its Own. GAO-12-
             838, September 12, 2012.

             Fiscal Exposures: Improving Cost Recognition in the Federal Budget.
             GAO-14-28, October 29, 2013.

             Emergency Preparedness: Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Interagency
             Assessments and Accountability for Closing Capability Gaps. GAO-15-20,
             December 4, 2014.

             High-Risk Series: An Update. GAO-15-290, February 11, 2015.

             Budgeting for Disasters: Approaches to Budgeting for Disasters in
             Selected States. GAO-15-424, March 26, 2015.

             Hurricane Sandy: An Investment Strategy Could Help the Federal
             Government Enhance National Resilience for Future Disasters. GAO-15-
             515, July 30, 2015.

             Disaster Response: FEMA Has Made Progress Implementing Key
             Programs, but Opportunities for Improvement Exist. GAO-16-87,
             February 5, 2016.

             Disaster Recovery: FEMA Needs to Assess Its Effectiveness in
             Implementing the National Disaster Recovery Framework. GAO-16-476,
             May 26, 2016.

             Federal Disaster Assistance: Federal Departments and Agencies
             Obligated at Least $277.6 Billion during Fiscal Years 2005 through 2014.
             GAO-16-797, September 22, 2016.

             Climate Change: Information on Potential Economic Effects Could Help
             Guide Federal Efforts to Reduce Fiscal Exposure. GAO-17-720,
             September 28, 2017.

             Disaster Assistance: Opportunities to Enhance Implementation of the
             Redesigned Public Assistance Grant Program. GAO-18-30, November 8,
             2017.


             Page 1                                                        GAO-19-594T
Enclosure I: Related GAO Products Previously
Issued




Disaster Recovery: Additional Actions Would Improve Data Quality and
Timeliness of FEMA’s Public Assistance Appeals Processing. GAO-18-
143, December 15, 2017.

2017 Disaster Contracting: Observations on Federal Contracting for
Response and Recovery Efforts. GAO-18-335, February 28, 2018.

Federal Disaster Assistance: Individual Assistance Requests Often
Granted but FEMA Could Better Document Factors Considered. GAO-18-
366, May 31, 2018.

2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires: Initial Observations on the Federal
Response and Key Recovery Challenges. GAO-18-472, September 4,
2018.

Homeland Security Grant Program: Additional Actions Could Further
Enhance FEMA’s Risk-Based Grant Assessment Model. GAO-18-354,
September 6, 2018.

Continuity of Operations: Actions Needed to Strengthen FEMA’s
Oversight and Coordination of Executive Branch Readiness. GAO-19-
18SU, November 26, 2018.

2017 Disaster Contracting: Action Needed to Better Ensure More
Effective Use and Management of Advance Contracts. GAO-19-93,
December 6, 2018.

U.S. Virgin Islands Recovery: Status of FEMA Public Assistance Funding
and Implementation. GAO-19-253, February 25, 2019.

High-Risk Series: Substantial Efforts Needed to Achieve Greater
Progress on High-Risk Areas. GAO-19-157SP, March 6, 2019.

Puerto Rico Hurricanes: Status of FEMA Funding, Oversight, and
Recovery Challenges. GAO-19-256, March 14, 2019.

Huracanes de Puerto Rico: Estado de Financiamiento de FEMA,
Supervisión y Desafíos de Recuperación. GAO-19-331, March 14, 2019.

Disaster Recovery: Better Monitoring of Block Grant Funds Is Needed.
GAO-19-232, March 25, 2019.




Page 2                                                        GAO-19-594T
Enclosure I: Related GAO Products Previously
Issued




FEMA Grants Modernization: Improvements Needed to Strengthen
Program Management and Cybersecurity. GAO-19-164, April 9, 2019.

2017 Hurricane Season: Federal Support for Electricity Grid Restoration
in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. GAO-19-296, April 18, 2019.

Disaster Contracting: Actions Needed to Improve the Use of Post-
Disaster Contracts to Support Response and Recovery, GAO-19-281,
April 24, 2019.

Disaster Assistance: FEMA Action Needed to Better Support Individuals
Who Are Older or Have Disabilities. GAO-19-318, May 14, 2019.




Page 3                                                        GAO-19-594T
Enclosure II: Ongoing GAO Reviews


             1. Review of U.S. Virgin Islands recovery planning and progress;
             2. Puerto Rico disaster recovery planning and progress;
             3. 2017 wildfire response and recovery;
             4. Federal internal control plans for disaster assistance funding;
             5. Electricity grid restoration and resilience after the 2017 hurricane
                season;
             6. Mass care sheltering and feeding challenges during the 2017
                hurricanes;
             7. Department of Transportation highway and transit emergency relief
                funding;
             8. Drinking water and wastewater utility resilience;
             9. Review of disaster death count information in selected states and
                territories;
             10. Department of Health and Human Services disaster response efforts;
             11. Disaster and climate change impacts on Superfund sites;
             12. FEMA Public Assistance program fraud risk management efforts;
             13. Wildland fire collaboration on fuel reduction efforts;
             14. Preparedness challenges and lessons learned from the 2017
                 disasters;
             15. FEMA workforce management and challenges;
             16. Small Business Administration response to 2017 disasters;
             17. Development of the GAO disaster resilience framework;
             18. FEMA Individuals and Households Program operations and
                 challenges;
             19. National Flood Insurance Program post-flood enforcement;
             20. Emergency alerting capabilities and progress;
             21. National Flood Insurance Program buyouts and property acquisitions;
             22. Economic costs of large-scale natural disasters and impacts on
                 community recovery;
             23. Community Development Block Grants – disaster recovery; and
             24. Disaster Housing Assistance Program.




(103565)
             Page 4                                                            GAO-19-594T
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