State and local officials have told the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) grant application process is complex and lengthy.
From fiscal years 2010 through 2018, FEMA obligated over $11 billion through four grant programs (Pre-Disaster Mitigation and its replacement program Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, Flood Mitigation Assistance, Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and Public Assistance) that fund state and local hazard mitigation efforts. FEMA awarded about 88 percent of this amount through the two grant programs that fund hazard mitigation post-disaster.
During GAO’s review, state and local officials from selected jurisdictions reported challenges with FEMA’s hazard mitigation grant programs, with 10 of the 12 jurisdictions saying grant application processes were complex and lengthy. To address this, FEMA officials augmented guidance and began monitoring application review time frames for one program and said they intend to assess two other programs to identify opportunities to streamline. However, GAO found they did not have a documented plan for doing so.
Officials from eight of the 12 jurisdictions also cited challenges with applicants’ technical capacity to successfully apply for grants. FEMA developed training and guidance to address this, but GAO found that these resources are listed on different parts of its website and can be difficult for state and local officials to locate. The watchdog said in its February 2 report that creating a centralized inventory of resources could improve applicant capacity to successfully develop mitigation projects and apply for grants.
FEMA hazard mitigation officials acknowledged that it can be difficult to find resources on their website and stated that they plan to develop new guidance that will consolidate and better link to information in Fact Sheets and other guidance documents. In July 2020, FEMA redesigned its website with the goal of making it more user-friendly, but as of September 2020 FEMA’s hazard mitigation resources were still linked on different pages and had not been consolidated in one place.
The review also found that FEMA has assessed some effects of grant-funded hazard mitigation projects, but could expand efforts and better share results. FEMA uses benefit-cost analysis, which estimates the benefits over the life of a project, and post-disaster loss avoidance studies, which estimate project benefits from actual hazard events, to assess project effects. However, the loss avoidance studies have been limited to hurricanes, floods, and tornados, and have not assessed wildfires, winter storms, or other disasters. FEMA officials stated that they would like to expand these studies but do not have specific plans to do so. In addition, FEMA requires some states to assess the effectiveness of their mitigation projects, but does not share these studies.
GAO has issued six recommendations:
- Establish a plan with time frames to develop pre-calculated benefits for additional project types, where appropriate.
- Establish a plan with time frames to assess grant program processes to identify and implement steps to reduce the complexity of and time required for grant applications, including steps to facilitate the use of funding from more than one FEMA mitigation grant program on a project.
- Create a centralized inventory of hazard mitigation resources on the FEMA website.
- Develop a plan for conducting future loss avoidance studies to ensure they can include more hazard types.
- Ensure that as new methods and metrics to assess the effectiveness of hazard mitigation are developed, FEMA officials consider opportunities to adopt common methods and metrics across all of its hazard mitigation programs.
- Publicly share pre-calculated benefits studies and state developed records of effectiveness, such as by posting them to its website.
With regard to the first recommendation, that FEMA establish a plan with time frames to develop additional pre-calculated benefits, DHS responded that it will develop such a plan by the end of October 2021.
In line with the second recommendation, DHS stated it would identify steps to assess the programs as part of ongoing efforts to develop a multi-year hazard mitigation assistance strategy, which it expects to complete by the end of June 2021. DHS said it would also meet the third recommendation to develop a strategy to better present information on FEMA’s website by the end of June 2021.
Addressing the fourth recommendation, DHS said FEMA will develop a plan for conducting future loss avoidance studies to ensure they can include more hazard types by the end of January 2022.
DHS also concurred with the final two recommendations and has commenced work to meet these.
Given that the number of natural disasters is expected to increase, fine-tuning hazard mitigation programs to ensure they are easy to use and fit for purpose is vital at both the local and national level in order to save lives and reduce the costs of disasters.