GAO Reports Highlight Ongoing Issues with FEMA and National Disaster Response

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released two reports highlighting ongoing issues with staffing and capacity-building reform at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  The first report details deficiencies surrounding FEMA’s efforts to reform their employee qualification tracking and deployment system. The second report addressed gaps in national emergency response.

The first report describes FEMA’s response to questions regarding the agency’s response to disasters in 2017 and 2018. The GAO held focus groups with over 100 FEMA staff members and interviewed field and regional officials. Through these interviews and focus groups, the GAO was identified significant issues with how FEMA staff qualifications are evaluated and deployed to disasters. These deficiencies can result in FEMA staff being deployed to handle programs (including the agency’s housing assistance programs, with which they have little familiarity). For example, “in one supervisory-level focus group with FEMA incident management officials, a participant described encountering staff members who were designated as qualified in the system but did not know how to use the information system for FEMA’s Individual Assistance program, the eligibility requirements for applicants to receive housing assistance, or what documentation and information needed to be included in the applicant’s file.” The report finds that while FEMA has made efforts to improve its systems, the reforms do not address issues with existing staff qualifications.  

The second report identifies disaster housing recovery as an area where large capacity gaps remain. The report finds that a majority of states from 2013-2017 reported housing as the area of disaster recovery where they had the lowest response capability. The report categorizes how disaster preparedness grants designed to improve state-level disaster response were utilized from 2013 to 2018. The use of these grants does not line up with the areas cited by states as areas for improvement. For example, only 3% of preparedness grants were used to improve states’ ability to address disaster housing recovery. The report explains the gap between how states used disaster preparedness grants and self-identified areas of weakness: “Both FEMA and state officials told us that sometimes jurisdictions do not use these grants to strengthen capabilities such as housing because they consider the federal government responsible for filling the gaps. For example, preparedness data from 2013 to 2017 showed the percent of jurisdictions identifying the federal government as responsible for providing housing solutions to disaster survivors increased from 46 to 53 percent. According to state officials from North Carolina, it would not be a prudent use of grant funds for the state to purchase and store temporary housing units that may not be needed inside the borders of the state for several years.”  

The conclusions of both reports are troublesome as the nation prepares for a hurricane season in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.  

Read the GAO Report on the FEMA workforce here: 

Read the GAO Report on gaps in national disaster response here: