GAO Report Details Changes Needed to Improve DHS Disaster Response

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to take the lead role in monitoring other federal agencies' efforts to meet their responsibilities under the National Response Plan and the interim National Preparedness Goal, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued Sept. 6.

The recommendation is one of six made to DHS in the report titled "Enhanced Leadership, Capabilities and Accountability Controls Will Improve the Effectiveness of the Nation's Preparedness, Response and Recovery System" which is the result of GAO's analysis of the effectiveness of the DHS response to Hurricane Katrina.

Calling Katrina the largest and most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history, the GAO report concludes that the "heroic efforts" of responders in the wake of Katrina saved thousands of lives. However, the scope of Katrina's destruction "almost immediately overwhelmed state and local first responders, and the response required outside action and support from many sources."

That outside support came from a wide range of agencies and organizations, from the U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard to faith-based and nonprofit organizations.

"Despite those efforts, various reports and our own work on the 2005 catastrophic disasters suggest that the substantial human, financial and technological resources and capabilities marshaled by governments at all levels were inadequate to meet the immediate challenges posed by the disaster's unprecedented geographic scope, degree of damage and the resulting number of hurricane victims who had to be relocated," the report states.

FEMA May Have Squandered Millions in Aid

As GAO testified to Congress in March, the report explains that the three basic elements in preparing for, responding to and recovering from any catastrophic disaster are:

  • Leadership Clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of all key stakeholders.
  • Capabilities "Building and sustaining effective capabilities through coordinated planning, training and exercises"; and
  • Accountability Making sure resources such as financial aid to hurricane victims get to the people who legitimately need them "while providing assistance and resources as quickly as possible."

The GAO report explains where it believes DHS fell short in those three areas. For example, the report estimates that FEMA doled out as much as $1.4 billion "in improper and potentially fraudulent payments to applicants who used invalid information to apply for expedited cash assistance." The report asserts that the government's processes for determining disaster victims' eligibility for aid were "insufficient."

Recommendations

Ultimately, the GAO report offers six recommendations to DHS, "updating and formalizing several recommendations" presented in GAO's March testimony to Congress.

The agency recommends that DHS:

  • "Rigorously re-test, train and exercise its recent clarification of the roles, responsibilities and lines of authority for all levels of leadership, implementing changes needed to remedy identified coordination problems;
  • Direct that the NRP base plan and its supporting Catastrophic Incident Annex be supported by more robust and detailed operational implementation plans;
  • Provide guidance and direction for federal, state and local planning, training and exercises to ensure such activities fully support preparedness, response and recovery responsibilities at a jurisdictional and regional basis;
  • Take a lead in monitoring federal agencies' efforts to prepare to meet their responsibilities under the NRP and the interim National Preparedness Goal;
  • Use a risk management approach in deciding whether and how to invest finite resources in specific capabilities for a catastrophic disaster; and
  • Provide guidance on advanced procurement practices and procedures for those federal agencies with roles and responsibilities under the NRP so that these agencies can better manage disaster-related procurement, and establish an assessment process to monitor agencies' continuous planning efforts for their disaster-related procurement needs and the maintenance of capabilities."

The GAO report also recommends that "Congress give federal agencies explicit authority to take actions to prepare for all types of catastrophic disasters when there is warning."

DHS Generally Agreed with Recommendations

GAO, which allowed DHS to review the report before its release, notes DHS generally agreed with the recommendations made in the report.

In a letter to GAO, Under Secretary for Preparedness George Foresman and Under Secretary for Federal Emergency Management R. David Paulison outline the steps DHS has taken to implement the six recommendations in the GAO report. In the letter, Foresman and Paulison assert that "[t]he lessons from Katrina will be incorporated into our broader national preparedness focus."

"A strategic national approach to preparedness not simply a federal approach is key to being ready for the full range of threats and hazards that define America's risk," they wrote.

The GAO report contends that the actions described in the letter, "if effectively implemented … should basically address the problems that we described in the draft report." However, the report also notes "there is little available information on the operational readiness of many of the reforms and actions DHS has announced in recent months."

"The first real test of these actions will come with the next major hurricane or other major disaster," the report says.

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