Government Accountability Office Releases Recommended Reforms for FEMA Assistance Programs

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a set of recommendations and data regarding FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program (IHP), which provides disaster survivors with assistance to recover and repair their homes. After reviewing data, interviewing FEMA staff, local officials, and disaster survivors, the GAO issued a set of 14 recommendations for improving the program.

Several improvements deal with the requirement that applicants for assistance apply for Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster recovery loans before receiving certain types of assistance from FEMA – something the GAO stated should be consistently communicated to applicants and streamlined to speed the application process. Another dealt with how FEMA communicates IHP information to applicants, including determination letters the agency sends to applicants it deems ineligible for assistance. These letters are typically confusing, with recipients often left unclear of the reason for the ineligibility determination and are less likely to remedy the issue as a result. Multiple recommendations also dealt with FEMA’s workforce, recommending that FEMA ensure staff deployed to Disaster Recovery Centers have the required skills to provide support and FEMA services during disasters, that training and support for staff be improved. Another recommendation was for FEMA to improve how it informs and educates local officials about its program, citing instances where local officials were left in the dark as to FEMA’s plans and programs after a disaster.

NLIHC’s Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DHRC), which includes more than 850 local, state, and national organizations active in equitable disaster recovery, have made many similar recommendations. Our recently released report “Fixing America’s Broken Disaster Housing Recovery System: Part Two,” includes disaster response and recovery reforms developed by DHRC members.

In addition to recommendations, the GAO also released supplemental IHP application data for disasters from 2016 to 2018. Hard data on FEMA programs has historically been difficult to find and access. While the GAO report contained only top-level data it does show that lower income households typically wait longer for assistance to be provided and that application rates were below those of higher income households in many disasters. For example, households that scored among the most vulnerable of applicants during the 2017 and 2018 California Wildfires had an application approval rate of below 20 percent. While this top-level data is less useful to researchers looking to measure the effectiveness of recovery programs, it does confirm that those most in need after a disaster often receive the least amount of assistance.

Read the GAO Report on FEMA’s IHP Program here:  

Read the DHRC’s “Fixing America’s Broken Disaster Recovery System” report here: