FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance (DSA) team members Juan Ramirez and Pedro Agosto Rivera, left, and FEMA Corps member Andrew Winston, right, visit Hurricane Maria survivors in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, on March 21, 2018. (Michael Medina-Latorre/FEMA)

GAO: FEMA, Red Cross Need to Ensure Key Mass Care Organizations Are Included in Disaster Response Planning

Disaster responders faced unprecedented demands for food and shelter after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria hit within four weeks in 2017, according to FEMA.

FEMA and the Red Cross coordinate with state, local, and volunteer organizations to provide food and shelter after major disasters. The Government Accountability Office found that the agreements state and local governments made with response organizations didn’t always include information about their capacity to provide services. In some cases food and shelter needs were not met.

GAO made 6 recommendations aimed at improving the coordination of response activities and the measurement of response capabilities.

Following the three major U.S. hurricanes in 2017, disaster relief efforts of FEMA and the American Red Cross benefited from locating key partners in the same place. In-person coordination was critical to maintaining communication in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands given the prolonged power outages and damage to public structures. However, some needs related to mass care—such as shelter, food, and supply distribution—were unmet. For example, local officials in Texas said flooded roads prevented trucks from delivering supplies. Providers encountered challenges in part because state and local agreements with voluntary organizations did not always clearly detail what mass care services could be provided. Additionally, FEMA guidance and training materials do not explicitly encourage states and localities to include in their written agreements the specific assistance each agency or organization can provide. This limits the benefits of mass care coordination and may put disaster victims at risk.

State, territorial, and local grantees of federal disaster preparedness grants are required to regularly submit information on their capabilities to FEMA, and FEMA has provided related guidance and technical assistance. However, the information some grantees provided to FEMA was not specific enough to aid its response in 2017. Moreover, FEMA does not require grantees to specify the organizations providing mass care services in their capabilities assessments. Also, FEMA does not have systematic protocols for providing feedback to grantees to improve their assessments. These limitations hinder FEMA’s efforts to strengthen emergency preparedness.

GAO is making six recommendations, including that FEMA emphasize the importance of defining roles and responsibilities in its guidance to states and localities, require them to solicit information from key mass care providers in assessing capabilities, and develop protocols for providing feedback to grantees on capability assessments. FEMA agreed with all but one of GAO’s recommendations; GAO maintains its recommendations are valid.

Read the GAO report

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