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Friday, December 9, 2022

GAO: FEMA Overwhelmed by Back-to-Back Natural Disasters in 2017

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that federal disaster responders were overwhelmed by four sequential disasters in 2017. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria were followed by catastrophic wildfires, creating unprecedented demand for disaster assistance.

The federal government has provided at least $120 billion in supplemental funding for these disasters, as well as help with response and recovery. For example, FEMA provided significant support to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria. However, the GAO report released today found that numerous challenges such as complex logistics for supplies due to distances from the mainland and the need to provide a number of services due to widespread devastation and loss of power slowed FEMA’s work.

Many of these challenges were also highlighted in FEMA’s own 2017 hurricane after action report, including:

  • The sequential and overlapping timing of the three hurricanes – with Maria being the last of the three – caused staffing shortages and required FEMA to shift staff to the territories that were already deployed to other disasters;
  • Logistical challenges complicated efforts to deploy federal resources and personnel quickly given the remote distance of both territories; and
  • Limited preparedness by the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico for a Category 5 hurricane and incapacitation of local response functions due to widespread devastation and loss of power and communications led FEMA to assume response functions that territories would usually perform themselves.

The 2017 hurricanes and wildfires highlighted some longstanding issues and revealed other emerging response and recovery challenges. For example, the concurrent timing and scale of the disaster damages nationwide caused shortages in available debris removal contractors and delays in removing disaster debris, which is a key first step in recovery. In addition, FEMA’s available workforce was overwhelmed by the response needs. For example, at the height of FEMA workforce deployments in October 2017, 54 percent of staff were serving in a capacity in which they did not hold the title of “Qualified” – according to FEMA’s qualification system standards – a past challenge GAO has identified. FEMA officials noted that staff shortages and lack of trained personnel with program expertise led to complications in its response efforts, particularly after Hurricane Maria.

In addition, federal, state, and local officials faced challenges finding temporary housing for disaster survivors given the extensive damage to available housing in each location. For example, given the widespread damage in Puerto Rico and lack of hotels and other temporary housing, FEMA transported survivors to the mainland United States to stay in hotels. FEMA also used new authorities and procedures to meet the need, such as providing Texas as much as $1 billion to manage its own housing program. However, this approach had not been used or tested in past disasters and state officials noted challenges in managing the program such as staffing shortfalls. State officials further noted challenges in coordinating with FEMA that led to delays in providing assistance to survivors. GAO will continue to monitor these programs.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that the cumulative damages from weather and climate-related disasters in the United States were over $300 billion in 2017 alone. As of June, Congress had appropriated over $120 billion in supplemental funding for response and recovery related to the 2017 hurricanes and wildfires. Further, in October 2017, close to 14,000 federal employees were deployed in response to the disasters.

The GAO report analyzed FEMA policies, procedures, guidance, and data specific to disaster response and recovery programs. GAO focused on the busiest period of disaster response activity for the federal government: August 2017 through January 2018, with select updates on recovery efforts and obtained updates through June 2018.

This report includes 10 appendices that provide further details and data on federal response and recovery efforts. These areas cover key issues and challenges that GAO believes are critical for assessing the federal response and warrant continued congressional and agency oversight during disaster recovery.

GAO is not making recommendations at this time, but has ongoing work that will address various response and recovery programs and challenges in more detail. GAO states it will make recommendations, as appropriate, once this work is completed.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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