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GAO Audit Highlights Importance of Enhanced Disaster Resilience

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, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded in a new 93-page audit report.

GAO said, “Most federal funding for hazard mitigation is available after a disaster. For example, from fiscal years 2011-2014, [the] Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] obligated more than $3.2 billion for Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) post-disaster hazard mitigation while the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program obligated approximately $222 million.”

“There are benefits to investing in resilience post-disaster,” GAO stated, noting that, “Individuals and communities affected by a disaster may be more likely to invest their own resources while recovering. However, there are also challenges. Specifically, the emphasis on the post-disaster environment can create a reactionary and fragmented approach where disasters determine when and for what purpose the federal government invests in disaster resilience.”

The Mitigation Framework Leadership Group (MitFLG) was created to help coordinate hazard mitigation efforts of relevant local, state, tribal and federal organizations, GAO pointed out, but, “A comprehensive investment strategy, coordinated by MitFLG, could help address some challenges state and local officials experienced.”

GAO recommends that FEMA assess the challenges state and local officials reported and implement corrective actions as needed and MitFLG establish an investment strategy to identify, prioritize and implement federal investments in disaster resilience.

The Department of Homeland Security agreed with both GAO recommendations.

“During the Hurricane Sandy Recovery, five federal programs—FEMA’s Public Assistance (PA), HMGP, the Federal Transit Administration’s Public Transportation Emergency Relief Program, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery and the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Hurricane Sandy program—helped enhance disaster resilience—the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from and more successfully adapt to disasters,” GAO stated, saying, “These programs funded a number of disaster-resilience measures, for example, acquiring and demolishing at-risk properties, elevating flood-prone structures and erecting physical flood barriers.”

State and local officials from the states affected by Hurricane Sandy GAO contacted reported they were able to effectively leverage federal programs to enhance disaster resilience, but also experienced challenges that could result in missed opportunities. GAO said the challenges fell into three categories:

  • Implementation challenges with PA and HMGP—for example, officials reported that FEMA officials did not always help them pursue opportunities to incorporate mitigation into permanent construction recovery projects;
  • Limitations on comprehensive risk reduction approaches in a postdisaster environment—for example, officials reported difficulties with navigating multiple funding streams and various regulations of the different federal programs funded after Hurricane Sandy; and
  • Local ability and willingness to participate—for example, officials reported that some home and business owners were unwilling or unable to bear the required personal cost share for a home-elevation or other mitigation project.

“FEMA officials told us that they were aware of some of these challenges and recognize the need to further assess them,” GAO reported. “Assessing the challenges and taking corrective actions, as needed, could help enhance disaster resilience.”

In response to the GAO audit’s findings, a bipartisan group of senators who requested the audit — Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Jack Reed (D-RI), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) – highlighted in a joint announcement “the importance of enhancing disaster resilience in order to better protect American families, businesses and communities against future extreme weather events.”

“In the report,” they stated, “GAO recommends the establishment of an investment strategy to identify,prioritize, and guide future federal investments in disaster resilience and hazard mitigation.”

“Our nation’s ability to withstand and recover from devastating storms such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy depends on communities being prepared and resilient,” Carper said in a statement. “The increase in intensity and frequency of extreme weather events comes at a high price to our country — not only in lives impacted — but also in economic terms.”

Carper said, “I often say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and this report reiterates that maxim. By investing in resilience measures, we can prevent damage and mitigate financial risks to our communities and taxpayers when a strong storm hits. As this report reveals, a number of state and local governments are focusing their rebuilding efforts on resilience and prudent, targeted investments that will go a long way in saving both lives and taxpayer dollars. Federal agencies should continue coordinating with local and state officials in these efforts, and moving forward, come up with a comprehensive strategic approach to prioritizing and implementing investments for disaster resilience in order to better  protect our communities from extreme weather events.”

“Nearly three years after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, its victims are still suffering its consequences—largely because federal agencies have mismanaged federal disaster resiliency funds,” Johnson added, saying the GAO audit “highlights the need for a new strategy to ensure federal funds dispersed for disaster resiliency are used efficiently to prepare for and respond to disasters. The victims of Hurricane Sandy—and disasters yet to come—deserve better. Federal agencies must ensure that assistance goes to those who need it most and that the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on these programs are put to good use.”

“We must help communities that have been hit by natural disasters and severe weather recover and become more resilient,” Reed said. “Instead of waiting for the next catastrophe to hit, the federal government should actively work with states and local partners to identify and invest in resiliency planning.”

Whitehouse said, “The terrible toll of Hurricane Sandy and the massive clean-up that followed remind us of the dire need for smart storm planning. As climate change drives sea levels ever-higher and loads the dice for more severe weather, this report shows that investing our resources wisely can lower risks and costs and ultimately help us build more resilient communities.”

In its biennial High Risk List released in February, GAO identified the financial impacts of climate change – including increasing intensity and frequency of high-impact weather events – as a certain and significant area of risk leading to government inefficiency, waste, fraud abuse or mismanagement. GAO reported that enhancing resilience can curb the high costs of climate change by reducing the risk of future damage from extreme weather and natural hazards.

The Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 appropriated about $50 billion for recovery from Hurricane Sandy, part of which was intended for disaster resilience and hazard mitigation. In March 2015, GAO identified the cost of disasters as a key source of federal fiscal exposure. GAO and others have advocated hazard mitigation to help limit the nation’s fiscal exposure.

 

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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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