The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has criticized the federal approach to disaster recovery as being fragmented across more than 30 federal entities. Such fragmentation can make it difficult for communities to figure out who to turn to for help. The watchdog said this approach is the product of over 40 years of incremental efforts to address emerging issues in disaster recovery through legislative reform as well as differing agency regulations and policies.
According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, extreme weather events are projected to become more frequent and intense in parts of the U.S. as a result of changes in the climate. Disaster recovery typically accounts for the majority of the activity following a disaster and occurs over a much longer time frame than disaster response. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had 494 open disasters dating back to 2004 as of July 2022, meaning these disasters are still receiving some level of federal support.
There have been benefits to having multiple entities involved in disaster recovery, but it has also created challenges. Specifically, state and local officials GAO met with said that they experienced challenges navigating multiple federal recovery programs, including their differing requirements and time frames; multiple federal authorities; and limited data sharing. The officials told GAO that the different sources of funding and time frames created uncertainty about whether and when they would receive disaster recovery grants. They explained that this uncertainty made it difficult for them to plan their recovery efforts in a way that would optimize their resources.
Officials also noted that more than one federal agency may have the authority to provide funding for a project, and without clear protocols or policies, it can be difficult to know which agency’s requirements to follow and could result in delays and missed opportunities for funding. For example, officials in Lumberton, North Carolina described uncertainty following Hurricane Florence about whether FEMA or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be responsible for canal debris cleanup. These officials said that the time involved in determining the appropriate authority, including back and forth communication with federal agencies, delayed the cleanup and recovery process, including causing a six-month delay in providing reimbursement to the city.
Officials also identified capacity challenges that were exacerbated, in part, by the other challenges related to fragmentation across federal disaster recovery programs. The capacity challenges mentioned included a lack of awareness of the full range of federal programs, limited staff to manage multiple and varying disaster recovery grants, and insufficient financial capacity to pay for the non-federal cost share or to cover up-front costs necessary for reimbursable grants, such as those administered by FEMA.
GAO acknowledged that Congress and federal agencies have taken steps to address aspects of these challenges—by creating interagency agreements to increase communication and by reducing program complexity—but the challenges remain.
As part of its review, GAO also convened 20 experts to discuss options for improving federal disaster recovery efforts. The expert panel agreed that the federal approach to disaster recovery needs to be improved. They discussed ways to make it more efficient and effective; better incentivize disaster resilience; and more equitably distribute assistance.
Based on interviews with federal, state and local officials, as well as the panel of experts, GAO has identified 11 options that could improve the federal approach to disaster recovery:
- Develop new efforts to clearly and consistently communicate about recovery programs.
- Provide coordinated technical assistance throughout disaster recovery.
- Develop models to more effectively coordinate across disaster recovery programs.
- Develop a single online application portal for disaster recovery that feeds into one repository.
- Standardize requirements of federal disaster recovery programs.
- Simplify requirements of federal disaster recovery programs.
- Further incentivize investments in disaster resilience as part of federal recovery programs.
- Identify desired recovery outcomes and develop a mechanism to track these across programs.
- Prioritize disaster recovery funding for vulnerable communities across all federal programs.
- Consolidate federal disaster recovery programs.
- Adjust the role of the federal government in disaster recovery.
Reforming the federal government’s approach to disaster recovery is a policy challenge and requires complex trade-offs, including consideration of the strengths and limitations of the many options. When faced with complex government-wide policy problems in the past, Congress has established independent commissions to formulate recommendations for policy reform. GAO said that establishing an independent commission to reform disaster recovery— including consideration of the 11 options — Congress may identify actions it could take to improve the effectiveness of the federal approach. “An improved approach could reduce the federal government’s fiscal exposure; improve service delivery to disaster survivors and state and local governments; and increase the speed of disaster recovery.” GAO’s report states. The watchdog adds that a commission could also identify ways to further incentivize disaster resilience and address concerns about the equity of benefits provided after disasters.
Short of government-wide reform, GAO found that agencies could do more to effectively manage fragmentation across federal disaster recovery programs. “FEMA—as administrator of several disaster recovery programs—can take steps to better manage fragmentation across its own programs, making the programs simpler, more accessible, and more user-friendly and improving the effectiveness of its federal disaster recovery efforts,” GAO said. FEMA officials responded that they already have several related initiatives underway to help make their programs more user-friendly, such as the interagency efforts to develop a common application for disaster survivors. However, they also acknowledged that there were additional steps they could take within their existing authorities.
As well as calling on Congress to consider establishing an independent commission to recommend reforms to the federal government’s approach to disaster recovery, GAO made four new recommendations for three agencies to identify and take steps to better manage fragmentation across disaster recovery programs. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development concurred and said they would provide an update on specific actions mid- to late-2023.
DHS disagreed with GAO’s characterization of the federal approach to disaster recovery as fragmented, stating that emergency management is a “multifaceted endeavor that involves multiple stakeholders across federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, private, and nonprofit entities.”