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GAO: FEMA Could Better Document Factors Considered With Individual Assistance Requests

A GAO report has found that FEMA often grants individual assistance requests but could better document the factors it considers.

From 2008 to 2016, FEMA received 294 Individual Assistance (IA) declaration requests from states, U.S. territories, and tribes to help individuals meet their immediate needs after a disaster. Of these, the President declared 168 and denied 126 requests. Across the various types of IA declaration requests, severe storms (190) were the most common disaster type and drought (1) was among the least common. FEMA obligated about $8.6 billion in IA for disaster declarations during this period.

GAO found that  FEMA regions did not consistently obtain and document information on all elements of established IA regulatory factors when making IA recommendations to headquarters. Following a declaration request, a FEMA region is to prepare a Regional Administrator’s Validation and Recommendation (RVAR)—a document designed to include data on each of the six IA regulatory factors for each declaration request as well as the regional administrator’s recommendation. GAO reviewed all 81 RVARs from July 2012—the date FEMA began using the new RVAR template—through December 2016. GAO found that regions did not consistently obtain and document information for the elements required under the six regulatory factors. For example, only 44 of the 81 RVARs documented all elements under the concentration of damage factor. By evaluating why regions are not completing all elements of each current IA regulatory factor, FEMA could identify whether any corrective steps are needed.

Officials from the 10 FEMA regions and 11 states GAO interviewed, reported positive relationships with each other, but also cited various challenges with the IA declaration process and regulatory factors. For example, these officials told GAO that there are no established minimum thresholds for IA, making final determinations more subjective and the rationale behind denials unclear. However, as required by the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013, FEMA has taken steps to revise the IA factors by issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking. According to FEMA, the proposed rule aims to provide more objective criteria, clarify the threshold for eligibility, and speed up the IA declaration process. As of April 2018, the proposed rule was still under consideration. According to FEMA officials, they plan to finalize the rule in late 2018; therefore, it is too early to know the extent to which it will address these challenges.

GAO recommends that the Administrator of FEMA should evaluate why regions are not completing the Regional Administrator’s Validation and Recommendations for each element of the current IA regulatory factors and take corrective steps, if necessary.

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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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