Preliminary Information on the Federal Government's Response to Recent Natural Disasters

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1990-05-01.

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

                   United States Gkneml Accounting OBke     1 y ;26         ?

For Release on      Preliminary    Information     on the Federal
Delivery            Government's    Response     to Recent Natural
Exoected at
lOLO0 a.m. EDT      Disasters
May 1, 1990

                    John M. Ols, Jr.,   Director, Housing and
                       Community Development Issues
                   ,Resources,   Community, and Economic Development
                   Before the Subcommittee    on Investigations and
                   Committee on Public Works and Transportation
                   U.S. House of Representatives

                      04f4/q//wz&                 7                  GAO Form 160 (12/87)
Mr. Chairman     and Members of the Subcommittee:

We are pleased to be here today to discuss   our ongoing..work
regarding  the federal government's response to recent natural

We are conducting       a broad-based     review of the federal        government's
response to Hurricane        Hugo. in September 1989 and the Loma Prieta
earthquake      in October 1989.       In addition     to your request,     which we
received     in March of this year, several         other cpmmittees       and
subcommittees      as well as individual        Congressmen have asked us to
review the Federal Emergency Management Agency's                  (FEMA) performance
in responding      to these disasters.        While each request expressed
concern about the overall         federal    response,    most requests     also
asked that we specifically         examine issues such as the breakdown of
law and order that occurred          in the U.S. Virgin       Islands   shortly
after   Hugo struck,     and whether FEMA is better         structured    and
staffed    in responding     to nuclear    attacks    than to natural     disasters.

After Hurricane      Hugo and the Loma Prieta           earthquake,     federal,
state,    and local agencies were challenged              to their 'limits     to
provide    the services     and supplies         needed to help victims      and to
rebuild    housing and public        facilities.       Once the President
declared     the disaster    areas, FEMA assumed its authorized              role for
coordinating     the relief     efforts       of the various    federal    agencies.
This is a major undertaking            for any disaster.

Historically,        FEMA has responded to an average of 23 disasters               a
year.      In an "average"       disaster,      about 2,000 individuals      and
families      seek federal     disaster      assistance,     and FEMA spends about
$10 million.         In contrast,      during the Hurricane        Hugo and Loma
Prieta     earthquake    disasters,        about 400,000 individuals      and
families      sought disaster       assistance.       According    to FEMA, estimated
expenditures       from the President's          Disaster   Relief   Fund for these
disasters      alone amounted to $2 billion.              This does not include
amounts spent     by other federal  agencies such as Department of
Transportation     and Small Business Administration,  and state,  local,
and volunteer     agencies.

I would    now like    to summarize     the results     of our work to date.

I would like to emphasize that we are not in a position               at this
time to give a final      opinion    about the federal     relief  efforts    we
are reviewing.      We plan to issue a report         in September 1990 that
will   include  overall   evaluations     and identify    actions  that need to
be taken to improve the federal         responsiveness     to natural
disasters.     At this time, numerous issues have emerged which we
will   share with you today.

Overall,      we see a common theme running          through the work we have
performed      so far.       In these disasters,     there seems to have been
cooidination      difficulties       and uncertainty      about the roles and
responsibilities         among the a.gencies involved         in disaster    relief.
This has become apparent as we obtained                information     on activities
during    the three major phases of emergency management:
preparedness,       immediate response,       and recovery.

      --   In the preparedness      phase, FEMA provides   guidance and
           funds for state and local emergency planning         and training.
           The state plans we reviewed vary widely in specificity,            and
           we are exploring     whether FEMA needs to provide     more
           specific  guidelines     to help ensure that emergency plans are
           comprehensive    and complete.    In addition,   State officials
           have questioned     the currency  and relevance    of some of
           FEMA's training     courses.

      -- During the immediate response phase after Hurricane          Hugo,
         local,   state,  and federal    agencies were confused about
      CJ their  roles,   and communications      system inadequacies  and
         breakdowns contributed       to delays in relief    efforts.  The
           extent of damage in the Virgin             Islands,     where water and
           power systems were down for a long period,                 meant that FEMA
           had to carry out responsibilities               normally   done by the
           state and local governments.              Federal forces were also
           flown to the Virgin        Islands    to restore      law and order.
           Because of ,the geographic         isolation      of Puerto Rico and the
           Virgin    Islands   and the frequency         of disasters       in the
           Caribbean,      FEMA is examining       the potential      for
           prepositioning      staff,    equipment and supplies           in these

      --   The recovery        phase involves      such activities         as repairing
           housing and public           facilities    and providing        grants and
           loans to individuals            and businesses     for damages incurred.
           In California,         issues have emerged concerning              the adequacy
           of federal       housing assistance , particularly              for low-income
           earthquake       victims.       Also, we are studying         FEMA's
           administration         of individual     and public       assistance
           programs and the roles of other federal                   agencies    in these
           programs.        Specific      areas of interest       include problems
           with applicant         registration     procedures,       adequacy of FEMA's
           computer system, timeliness             and sufficiency        of FEMA's
           inspection       of damaged properties,         and overlapping         federal
           responsibilities          for some relief     activities.

In addition,       we are studying       several issues dealing      with FEMA's
overall   organization        and management.      These are the adequacy of
agency staffing       to deal with major disasters;         the implications        of
numerous vacant high level positions             in FEMA; and the results         of
several   activities       undertaken     by FEMA officials    to evaluate     their
disaster    relief    efforts     and make recommendations       for improving      the
fedCPa1 PtmpSnSe fQ future            disasters.


The major     objectives     of the various        requests     are to review         FEMA's

      --    implementation     of   its   responsibilities            under   the   Stafford

      --    timeliness,  efficiency, and competency in responding                        to
            state and local governments  and disaster victims;

      --    capability  to coordinate   and direct      the activities     of
            other governmental    and nonprofit    relief   organizations;

      --    relationship      and coordination        with    state     and local
            disaster     assistance   agencies;       and

      --    ability to fulfill  its disaster  relief    mission in light                       of
            the number of vacant or unconfirmed      top positions.

Our work has been done at the FEMA disaster              field  offices--where
federal,    state,    and volunteer     agencies are to coordinate        their
response efforts,        FEMA's regional     offices,  and disaster
application      centers where disaster        victims apply for assistance.
We are also surveying         state and local agencies and governments
involved    in disaster      assistance   activities   in Alabama, California,
North Carolina,       Puerto Rico, South Carolina,         and the Virgin      Islands
to collect     information     on their   experiences    in disaster
preparedness,      response,     and recovery.

In addition,     we have contacted     other agencies involved       in
disaster    response and recovery      in an effort     to determine    the
adequacy of the overall        federal   response.    These agencies include
the Departments     of Agriculture,      Defense, Education,     Housing and
Urban*Develop,ment     (HUD), and Interior;       General Services

Administration;'     Small Business Administration  (SBA);              and volunteer
organizations,      such as the American Red Cross.

When a disaster        strikes   or threatens,      responsibility       for
protection,     relief      and recovery    resides    with the individuals        and
institutions     affected,      aided by local and state governments              and
volunteer    organizations.         When these resources          are inadequate,
however; the governor of the affected               state can request federal
assistance.      The disaster       relief   program, managed by FEMA, is the
primary means of federal           aid--but    not the only one.

The program is designed to supplement the efforts                  and available
resources      of state and local governments        and volunteer         relief
organizations.         FEMA is not primarily     a first     response agency.
FEMA's predisaster        activities    include  assisting,      reviewing,        and
providing      funds for state emergency preparedness            activities.         In
the immediate response phase, FEBA monitors               potential      or'actual
disasters,       assesses damage, and prepares       a recommendation           for a
disaster    declaration      after   the governor determi.nes that the
magnitude of the situation           is beyond the capabilities          of the

When the President           declares  a major disaster,       a variety     of federal
assistance      may become available.         FEMA is responsible        for
coordinating        all of this aid.      Federal agencies involved            in
responding       to the disasters      are included   in the appendix.
Disaster     relief     activities    may be accomplished       under FEMA's
authority,       or under the agencies'       own authorities.

After    the declaration,      a FEMA-state agreement is executed,          which
describes    the manner in which federal          assistance    is made
available.      It lists    the counties   eligible      for assistance;
stipulates     any division     of costs among federal,       local and state
governments     and other conditions      of assistance;      and specifies     the

    period officially          recognized       as the duration          of the major

    A presidential       declaration       of a major disaster                can make a broad
    range of assistance          available--      for both individuals                 and public
    entities.      Individual       assistance       may include           temporary housing,
    disaster    unemployment assistance,              individual           and family grants,
    legal services,       crisis     counseling       and loans to individuals                     and
    businesses.       Public entities,          including         state and local
    governments      and private       nonprofit      facilities,            are also eligible
    for assistance,       which includes          debris      removal and repair                or
    replacement      of roads, bridges,           water control            facilities,         public
    buildings    and related       equipment,        public       utilities,         recreational
    facilities     and parks,      and eligible         private         nonprofit       facilities.
    Additional     public     assistance      available         includes        community disaster
    loans, hazard mitigation            assistance,        and repairs            and operating
    assistance,    to schools.

           Stafford      Act

    The Robert T. Stafford       Disaster  Relief  and Emergency Assistance
    Act (November 23, 1988) made substantial         changes to the disaster
    relief   legislation.      These changes expanded eligibility      and
.   increased     funding   in both the individual   and public   assistance
    categories     and included:

           --    increasing the temporary housing                  assistance       eligibility
                 period from 12 to 18 months,

           --    increasing    individual     and family   grant            assistance        from
                 $5,000    to $10,000,    adjusted   annually,

            --   amending the definition             of private     nonprofit   organizations
           *     to include  those that           provide    essential    governmental
          --   authorizing    the federal  government to pay 10 percent of
               total   public   assistance expenditures    for hazard mitigation
               measures which are determined       to substantially       reduce the
               risk of future     damages caused by a natural       disaster,

          --   reducing  the amount of funds provided  to public                              or private
               nonprofit   facilities that should have had flood                              insurance,
               but did not, and

          --   allowing    the President   to direct   Department of Defense                              to
               use its resources     prior   to the disaster   declaration--for                                  a
               period not to exceed 10 days-- to perform work on public
               and private    lands deemed necessary for the preservation                                    of
               life   and property.


Several        issues have emerged in our work concerning       the adequacy                                 of
disaster        preparedness, response, and recovery   activities.

Natural        Disaster      Preparedness

State      and local        governments        have emergency             preparedness        programs
with      ongoing     activities        designed       to ensure          that     they    are ready      to
respond        to disasters.           Their    programs         include         the preparation        of
emergency         response     plans     and participation                in training        and
disaster        exercises      that     simulate       actions          taken     before    and after        a
natural        disaster.       FEMA provides           funds      for     emergency        preparedness

Although        FEMA does not                  formally         approve          state         or local           emergency
response        plans,          it     provides        overall          guidance              and technical                        ,
assistance         on plan             preparation             to state          emergency              preparedness
officials.            FEMA also             reviews           emergency          plans          for         counties
receiving         federal             emergency        preparedness                   funds.

FEMA criteria             for         emergency        plans          require          that      plans          follow       a
multihazard           format--generic                  plans          that      can be applied                   to any
disaster        a state              or local       jurisdiction               might          face.           The planning
criteria        provide              general      guidance            as to how the plan                        should       be
organized         and the emergency                    response              elements           that         must be

According         to some state                  officials,            multihazard               plans          are broad
authority         and policy              documents            that      should         be supplemented                     with
specific        procedures               to be an effective                     tool      for         responding            to
disasters.            The six            plans      we examined               varied          widely          in their

In addition           to planning,                other        important              aspects          of preparedness
include        training              and participating                 in exercises                   for     disaster
response.          Exercises              conducted            in the Virgin                  Islands           several
months       before       Hugo struck               showed that               disaster           managers              had not
received        adequate              training        for      their         roles.           In South Carolina,
limited        participation                in training               and exercises                   by local           officials

may have contributed                  to.coordination                difficulties           after      Hugo

Some state          officials         have questioned                whether        FEMA training             courses
are current          or rele,vant          'as they        pertain         to natural        disaster
preparedness.               For example,           North        Carolina        emergency          preparedness
officials       said        the FEMA disaster                  recovery        course     has not been
revised       to include          Stafford         Act changes             to disaster           assistance
programs.           California         officials           said      some FEMA courses               need to be
modified       to    include         up-to-date         emergency             response      principles;           and
in their       view,        courses       that     emphasize          civil      defense         are not

Immediate       Response

Several       issues        have emerged concerning                     the     adequacy         of the
immediate       response          by government                and volunteer            agencies.            During
the   first     days after            Hugo struck              the Caribbean            and South Carolina,
the   activities            of various           agencies         were characterized                by confusion
and uncertainty              about     roles       and responsibilities.                     In the Virgin
Islands       and Puerto          Rico,      state      and local             governments          and volunteer
organizations           were unable              to adequately             perform       their      roles,      and
FEMA did       not have the personnel,                         supplies,        and equipment           to
coordinate          the response           effectively.               In several          disaster
locations,          state       and local         officials          made requests           for     assistance
to fdderal          agencies       and legislators                 outside       the established               chains

of command, making                it     difficult            to establish             accountability                  for
actions          taken     or assistance              requested          but    not,provided.

Prior       to Hurricane          Hugo, predeployment                     of resources             such as
personnel           and equipment              ,varied     by location.                In the Caribbean,
FEMA did          not predeploy            staff         or resources.                In the Carolinas,                      FEMA
assigned          a limited       number of personnel                     to state           and local
emergency           operating          centers        before       the hurricane,                but     no equipment
or supplies.

Communications               problems          existed        in several          places,         making         it     more
difficult           to assess          local       needs and provide                  assistance.            In South
Carolina,           some local          emergency          preparedness               offices      could         not
communicate           with      each other            because       of damaged communication
equipment.               In the Virgin             Islands,        most communications                    between             the
islands,          and with       the mainland,                were cut         off,      contributing                 to a
delay       of    several       days      in the disaster                declaration.

In the Virgin              Islands,        the local           police       and National                Guard were
unable       to maintain          law and order                during       the first            days after             Hugo
struck,          and federal           forces        were sent          to restore           law and order                   at
the request              of the Governor.                 We understand               that      steps     are now
being       taken        to improve        the       readiness       of the National                    Guard.

Although          there      were several             indications          of environmental                  hazards
in th't? Virgin            Islands,        Environmental             Protection              Agency       (EPA)

officials           did     not     arrive         to assess          damage and provide                  technical
assistance           for     several         weeks after              the hurricane             struck.
Coordination               problems         between            FEMA and EPA seem to have
contributed               to this        situation.


Once the           immediate            disaster         response         is underway,               federal      agencies
begin       the     recovery            phase.          Among the         issues       we are reviewing                 are
housing        and the administration                          of    individual         and public              assistance


The Loma Prieta               earthquake                and Hurricane             Hugo showed the
difficulties               of dealing            with      the temporary              and long-term              disaster-
related        housing        needs of low-income                      victims         in areas          with     shortages
of affordable               housing.

In California,               HUD estimates                 that      4,000     low-income             units      have been
destroyed          or severely              damaged,           and they        will     probably          not     be
rebuilt        without        government                aid.        FEMA, however,             did     not believe              it'
was authorized               to provide             funds         to restore          or replace          these        units.
A lawsuit          led      to a partial                resolution           in that         FEMA has now agreed
to provide           funds        for     some units              under      section         403 of the Stafford
Act,      'which     authorizes             FEMA to provide                funds       for     emergency          shelter.

According             to FEMA officials,                    the Congress          needs to clarify                   federal
responsibilities                 for      housing           assistance         in future          disasters.

FEMA's temporary                 housing          program           may not      address        the needs of low-
income earthquake                  v,ictims         who lived          in single          room occupancy                units
or shared             housing.          Many of these                people      could     not meet FEMA's
eligibility             requirements               for      temporary         housing      aid.       For example,
FEMA required              applicants              to prove          30-day      tenancy.          Of those            that
did      qualify,        many were unable                    to meet their              temporary        housing            needs
with      the       2-months'          rent      checks       provided.           FEMA did         not     initially
provide         mobile      homes for              earthquake          victims          in Watsonville,
California,             to help         meet this            need because          it     did     not understand
that      affordable            housing          could       not be rented.

Housing         for     disaster          victims           has also      been a major             issue       in the
Caribbean.              More than             600 families            were made homeless                 by Hurricane
Hugo in St.             Croix,         Virgin       Islands.           We are reviewing               alternatives
FEMA is considering                     to provide            for     the temporary             and long        term
housing         needs of these                  families.

An emerging             issue      is whether               FEMA should         work more closely                    with
local,        state,       and federal              agencies          to develop          a strategy           for
effectively             meeting         the housing            needs of low-income                  disaster

         Administration                  of    individual            assistance           programs

Individual           assistance               programs        include         temporary           housing       aid,
disaster          loans,         and individual               and family           grants.           These programs
are administered                  by FEMA, the Small                   Business           Administration               (SBA)
and state          agencies.              Applicants           for     this       assistance          were uncertain
about      the     status         of their          applications,               and delays           occurred          as
cases were forwarded                      from one agency                  to another.              Emerging          issues
concern         applicant          registration,               information              systems,        and

FEMA accepted               individual            assistance           applications               in person        at
disaster         application              centers        and over           the    telephone.            While
telephone          registrations                may have been helpful                      in handling           the
large      volume         of applications,                   SBA and state              officials        said      that
telephone          registration,                 in some cases,               resulted        in     inadequate
service         to applicants                 and an increase               in duplicate             registrations.

In California,               there        was a backlog               of    10,000        telephone
registrations               by    the time          FEMA's computer                system         was set       up at the
disaster         field       office.             In addition,              FEMA initially             had
difficulties              with     its        registration            control          numbers,       and its
computer         system          was not designed               to check duplicate                    addresses             or
social         security          numbers.          California              officials         reported         that,         as a
result       of these            problems,         FEMA forwarded                 hundreds          of duplicate
cases*to         them for          individual            and family             grants.

Since     FEMA,did          not    integrate         its     computer           system      with      those       of SBA
and the        states,        duplication           of effort           existed       in entering
individual          assistance         application              data.

To assess        the extent           of damage to residences,                        FEMA arranges               for
inspections          either        by its      own inspectors                 or by Corps of Engineers
or contract          inspectors.             These         inspections           were found           to be
inadequate          for     accurate        grant     determinations                by California                and
Puerto       Rico    officials.             In South         Carolina,            temporary         housing           aid
was delayed          for      up to 6 weeks in some cases because                                  of an
insufficient              number of       inspectors              to verify        housing         damage.

As a result          of FEMA's registration                        and inspection             problems,
California          officials         estimated            they     issued        4,000     grants        that        were
either       duplicate,           excessive,         or given           to the wrong persons.                         In
addition,        the South          Carolina         disaster           field      office      referred           about
300 instances              of potential          fraud       to FEMA's Inspector                    General.

         Administration             of public         assistance              programs

Public       assistance           programs       involve           the repair,            restoration,            and
replacement          of damaged public                and private               nonprofit          facilities.
Several        issues       have emerged            in administering                these      efforts,
including        overlapping           federal        authorities,               and eligibility                 of
      Y          organizations.

Responsibility               for     disaster          assistance        to schools              is divided
between      the Department                  of Education            and FEMA.           This        split
responsibility               caused duplication                 of     inspections            and contributed,
to delays         in making            needed repairs            to schools             in California,                North
Carolina,         and the Virgin                Islands.

Similarly,           responsibility              for     removing        debris         from drainage
ditches      is    split           between      FEMA and the            Soil     Conservation                Service.
These agencies              disagree          over      who should            pay for        this     service         in
South Carolina.

FEMA's regulations                   implementing           the Stafford               Act    broadened             the
criteria      used to determine                   the eligibility                of nonprofit
organizations              for      public      assistance           funds      to include            organizations
providing         "essential             governmental           type     services            to the general
public."          These criteria                caused      uncertainty               among FEW4 and state
officials         as to what organizations                       qualify         for     funds        to repair            or
restore      their         facilities.            According           to FEMA officials,                     they     will
seek additional                  guidance       from     the Congress            on this            issue.


Two other         issues          have emerged-- the             adequacy         of     staff        resources
available         to FEMA to respond                    to several            major     disasters            within        a

                                                           15             .
    short        time         frame         and the      impact        of vacancies               in high       level

I   positions.

    Adequacy            of staff             resources

    FEMA experienced                        problems       in securing            sufficient              numbers of staff
    to meet all                of     its     needs during             the disasters               that       struck       in the
    fall     of     1989.           Consequently,              we are reviewing                    how FEMA obtains                the
    personnel            it     needs to staff                its      disaster         field       offices        and
    disaster            application               centers.           We are reviewing                   the numbers of
    staff        needed and how these                        needs are filled                   using      permanent         staff
    from FEMA or other                        federal        agencies,-          paid      disaster           reservists        from
    around        the         nation,         or local        hires.         Our work             includes        an
    assessment                of any impediments                    to training            and using           non-disaster
    assistance                personnel           when needed to respond                        to natural         disasters.
    In addition,                we are studying                whether           federal          agencies'        disaster
    relief        personnel                 have adequate            bilingual          skills.

    Hiqh-level                FEMA vacancies

    We are assessing                        the   impact      of political              appointee             and Senior
    Executive            Service             vacancies        on FEMA's ability                    to respond           to major
    disasters.                 In September              1989,       there    were at least                   6 vacant
    positions            that       involved            disaster        assistance              activities,            including
    FEMA's Director                     and the         Director        of the New York office.                            We want

t0 bring         to your          attention,          however,           that     two key disaster
assistance             positions        in FEMA headquarters                      were not vacant.


FEMA has several                  efforts       underway         to examine            the        federal
capability             and performance               in responding               to natural           disasters.
FEMA officials                  are incorporating              lessons           learned          from      federal,
state,       and local            experiences          with      recent          natural          disasters.                 For
example,         OMB requested               FEMA to prepare                a list         by     April      1st     of
modifications               and changes          to legislation                  and programs               that     should
be   considered             as a part          of the     fiscal          year       1991       budget       process.
However,         we have been               advised     that       its     effort          will      not be
completed         for       several         weeks.

In another             effort      to evaluate          the      federal          response,           FEMA prepared                  a
report       in compliance              with     the Stafford              Act       to develop             proposals          for
improving         federal          delivery          of disaster            assistance.               Among the
report's         findings          were the          need to streamline                    individual              assistance
programs         for      large-scale           disasters          and to continually                       work with
state      and local             emergency       management organizations                            to improve
response         capabilities.

At the April              1990     National          Hurricane           Conference,              FEMA officials
cited      the    need for           improvements             in four           areas' of disaster                  relief

         --    Roles      and responsibilities:                       there    is a need for           more
               clearly          defined         federal      roles,       responsibilities             and
               procedures,             and better           public      information.

         --    Orqanization              and staffing:                FEMA lacks       the optimum
               organizational-structure                         to conduct         and coordinate
               response          efforts.

         --    Immediate             response:            FEMA needs to rapidly               deploy       staff
               and resources                 on-site       when a possibility              of a major
               disaster          exists.

         --    State      and local            government          capabilities:             State     and local
               elected         officials          must be knowledgeable                   about      disaster
               assistance             programs,           and tests       and exercises           should        be

To further         improve            the overall           federal       response,        FEMA officials
are meeting            with      federal         agencies         to examine        the    federal       response
in recent        disasters.                   A meeting         in the Caribbean             was held        last
month,        and another             will     be held       later      this   month in Baltimore.
These meetings                will     address         issues      such as the types              of support
that     agencies         provided            in Hugo and Loma Prieta                  and the changes               the
agencies        are considering                  or will        adopt     in response         to lessons
1earn;ed from            the recent            disasters.

Mr. Chairman,     this   concludes   tiy prepared    statement.   I welcome    the
opportunity     to answer    any questions    that   you or Members   of the
Subcommittee     may have.