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Challenges Remain in FEMA’s Ability to Lead National Preparedness Efforts, Fed Audit Says

Challenges Remain in FEMA’s Ability to Lead National Preparedness Efforts, Fed Audit Says Homeland Security TodayA Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit report found in December 2014 federal departments had identified emergency response capability gaps through national-level exercises and real-world incidents, but that the status of agency actions to address these gaps is not collected by or reported to the Department of Homeland Security or Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Chris Currie, director homeland security issues at GAO, said during a hearing by the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications Thursday that GAO had “recommended that FEMA—in collaboration with other federal agencies—regularly report on the status of corrective actions,” and that “FEMA agreed with GAO’s recommendation and is taking action to address it, but has not established a timeframe for completion.”

Currie said FEMA’s efforts to lead national preparedness efforts, “particularly efforts to assess emergency support capabilities and enhance logistics capabilities … is critical to ensure that they will be available when needed in emergencies.”

Currie said GAO’s “recent work on disaster response and recovery programs also identified progress and challenges in a number of areas,” noting that, “From Fiscal Years 2004 through 2013, FEMA obligated over $95 billion in federal disaster assistance for 650 major disasters declared during this timeframe.”

“With the growing cost of disasters, it is vital for the federal government to address its fiscal exposure and ensure that response and recovery programs are as efficient and effective as possible,” Currie said GAO’s latest audit concluded.

For example, Currie said in December 2014 it found “FEMA demonstrated progress controlling for potentially fraudulent payments to individuals during Hurricane Sandy as compared to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”

However, GAO also found “continued challenges, including weaknesses in validation of Social Security numbers.” GAO made recommendations to strengthen these processes.

Further, in July 2015, Currie said GAO reported states and localities affected by Hurricane Sandy were able to effectively leverage federal programs to enhance resilience during their recovery.

“However,” Currie told the subcommittee, “states experienced continued challenges in implementing certain FEMA recovery programs, such as public assistance.”

Currie further told the panel GAO “found that there was no comprehensive, strategic approach to identifying, prioritizing and implementing investments for disaster resilience.”

“FEMA has … taken steps to strengthen a number of its management areas, but … additional progress is needed in several areas,” she testified. Specifically, she said, in December 2014, GAO found FEMA had taken steps to control its administrative costs—the costs of providing and managing disaster assistance—by issuing guidelines and reduction targets,” but found “FEMA does not require the targets to be met and continued to face challenges tracking the costs.”

Among other things, Currie said GAO recommended FEMA develop an integrated plan to better control and reduce its administrative costs for major disasters. Then, in July 2015, GAO reported FEMA had taken action to address various long-standing workforce management challenges, “but faced multiple challenges, including implementing and managing its temporary workforces and completing strategic workforce planning efforts."

Currie said FEMA agreed with GAO’s recommendations and is taking action to address them.

Last month, Homeland Security Today reported DHS’s Inspector General (IG) determined a  $32.4 million FEMA grant made to a Houston, Texas hospital to repair damages from Hurricane Ike in 2008 was grossly mismanaged and misued.

The IG’s audit report, FEMA Should Recover $32.4 Million in Grant Funds Awarded to Riverside General Hospital, Houston, Texas, also cited lax monitoring of hospital officials’ use of the taxpayer-funded grant awarded by the Texas Division of Emergency Management, a FEMA grantee.

The IG’s audit, undertaken at FEMA’s request, examined 100 percent of the grant award. The DHS Inspector General found “Riverside officials blatantly misspent disaster recovery funds on day-to-day operations of the hospital and on legal fees, insurance, gift cards, as collateral for loans, and on other unverifiable items with no connection to the damages caused by Hurricane Ike."

“This is an unconscionable misuse of Federal disaster resources,” said Inspector General John Roth. “The entire amount of this grant should be recovered to protect these funds from further abuse.”

Despite FEMA’s decade of progress after Hurricane Katrina, millions in public assistance grants were misspent, the IG concluded.

Earlier, GAO revealed in a 93-page audit report there is no comprehensive, strategic approach to identifying, prioritizing and implementing investments for disaster resilience, which increases the risk that the federal government and nonfederal partners will experience lower returns on investments or lost opportunities to strengthen key critical infrastructure and lifelines.

Despite the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act that gave FEMA clear guidance on its mission and priorities and provided the legislative authorities needed to better partner with state, local, tribal and territorial governments before, during and after disasters, the IG recently concluded that FEMA should recover more than $52 million that was awarded in Public Assistance Grant Funds that were improperly used.

For example, the IG determined $4.9 Million of $87.7 million in Public Assistance Grant Funds awarded to the Hancock County, Mississippi Board of Supervisors for Hurricane Katrina damages should be recovered by FEMA.

The IG also determined:

FEMA should recover $1.3 million of Public Assistance Grant Funds awarded to Desire Street Ministries, New Orleans, for Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA should recover $8.0 Million of $26.6 million in Public Assistance Grant Funds Awarded to St. Stanislaus College Preparatory in Mississippi for Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA should recover $1.7 million of Public Assistance Grant Funds Awarded to the City of Waveland, Mississippi for Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA should recover $8.2 million of the $14.9 million of Public Assistance Grant Funds Awarded to the Harrison County School District, Mississippi for Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA should recover $5.3 million of the $52.1 million of Public Assistance Grant Funds awarded to the Bay St. Louis Waveland School District in Mississippi for Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA should recover $3.5 million of Public Assistance Grant Funds awarded to the City of Gautier, Mississippi for Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA should recover $3.2 million of Public Assistance Grant Funds awarded to the Moss Point School District for Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA should recover $8.5 million of Public Assistance Grant Funds that were awarded to the City of Gulfport, Mississippi for debris removal and emergency protective measures following Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA should also recover another $1.9 million of Public Assistance Grant Funds awarded to the Hancock County Utility Authority for Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA should recover another $894,764 of Public Assistance Grant Funds that were awarded to the Town of Dauphin Island, Alabama for Hurricane Katrina.

Finally, the IG found FEMA should recover $5.3 million of Public Assistance Grant Funds awarded to the University of Southern Mississippi for Hurricane Katrina.

A little more than 10 years ago, Hurricane Katrina caused an estimated $108 billion in damage, making it the largest, most destructive natural disaster in our nation’s history.

Following the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (Post-Katrina Act). The act contained over 300 provisions that are intended to enhance national preparedness, emergency response and recovery, and the management of select disaster programs.

In October 2012, another catastrophic hurricane—Hurricane Sandy—caused $65 billion in damage and once again tested the nation’s preparedness and emergency response and recovery functions.

GAO has issued multiple reports that discuss a wide variety of emergency management issues reflecting the federal government and FEMA’s efforts to implement provisions of the Post-Katrina Act and address various aspects of emergency management.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told the subcommittee Thursday that, “The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act (SRIA) directs FEMA to provide more objective criteria for evaluating the need for assistance to individuals, to clarify the threshold for eligibility and to speed a declaration of a major disaster or emergency under the Stafford Act.”

Fugate said, “One clear example of SRIA’s effective use of taxpayer dollars is the Public Assistance Permanent Work Alternative Procedure provision that provides substantially greater flexibility in use of federal funds for public assistance applicants and far less administrative burden and costs for all parties – if applicants accept grants based on fixed, capped estimates.”

Also testifying before the subcommittee Thursday was Bryan Koon, president of the National Emergency Management Association and director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. He acknowledged that, “While we still have work to do in reviewing and implementing policies and programs, FEMA has undertaken efforts to improve many processes and programs.”

“The agency has made many advances in refining their back office operations such as improving their hiring, management, information technology and procurement systems,” Koon said, adding that, “FEMA has also encouraged the use of current codes and standards in existence for mitigation rather than using cost benefit analysis formulas.”

Koon said, “The Public Assistance Reengineering is an excellent example of FEMA working to improve and maximize existing programs. While it is still too early to determine the effectiveness of the change, we are pleased with the effort and urge that similar reforms be considered by other programs that impact our ability to mitigate, prepare and recover.”

He stated that, “Throughout their strategic plan, FEMA has made it a priority to build capability for catastrophic disasters” and has “moved the focus away from being singularly on Stafford Act programs and instead looked at the nation’s resources to recover. Preparing for catastrophic disasters has led FEMA to ensure that all employees are now deployable emergency managers.”

FEMA has begun “to train each employee, regardless of the department or position, so that they can be deployed as needed,” Koon told lawmakers, adding, “FEMA has also made it a priority to become an expeditionary organization. The agency has increased and improved engagement across the preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation missions while also working towards reducing disaster risk nationally. The agency has focused on providing mitigation programs with a focus on future conditions and not historical averages.”

“The agency has worked to ensure that the whole community uses the best available data and analytic tools to make better risk-informed decisions before, during and after disasters,” he stated.

“Over the last decade, with the support of Congress and the additional authorities provided, including the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (PKEMRA) and the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 (SRIA), FEMA continues to significantly improve the way we respond to disasters so that communities are able to recover as quickly as possible and build back safer and more resilient in the long-term,” Fugate stated.

Fugate said, “There is a shared recognition that FEMA cannot only plan for events we are capable of responding to; rather, we must plan for catastrophic events that will overwhelm capabilities at all levels of the government and private sector and challenge even the most scalable structures and systems. Further, we must constantly enhance preparedness, test systems, and exercise capabilities so we can support the whole community following a catastrophic event.”

“Our systems and capabilities must be designed so that weare able to execute the mission whenever and wherever needed, including in austere conditions,” Fugate said, noting that, “We continue to work collaboratively with our stakeholders, across the whole community, to ensure our nation is better prepared for current and future risks. By helping to build the capacity and capabilities of our state, local, tribal, and territorial partners, we are empowering communities and citizens across the nation – which, I believe, will have a far greater impact than the federal government alone ever will.”

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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