- More than 30 federal entities play a role in disaster recovery.
- A new report released this week by the Government Accounting Office suggests some course corrections.
- The government says it wants to cut red tape, but efforts to tackle allegations of fraud and abuse have complicated disaster recovery for decades.
Public officials across the country sometimes refer to recovery from a major federally-declared disaster as the “disaster after disaster.” Navigating the maze of federal programs that offer assistance and funding can be complicated, frustrating and time-consuming.
Meanwhile, disasters happen more often than before and this is expected to increase as climate change causes more extreme and frequent weather events. Since 2018, disasters have been declared in every state, the five major territories and the District of Columbia.
A new report this week of the Government Accounting Office recognizes all this and suggests some course corrections. But experts say it won’t be easy to simplify the complex mix of agencies and reporting requirements.
More than 30 federal entities play a role in disaster recovery, helping state, local and tribal governments rebuild and redevelop. Operating under a hodgepodge of rules, regulations and policies, they have handed out $593 billion in aid since 2005.
They continue to work on finalizing the final disaster documents dating back to 2004.
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GAO spoke with officials from five states and 14 local governments about their recovery from nine major disasters, including hurricanes Sandy, Harvey, Florence and Maria, the 2018 California wildfires and the floods in West Virginia in 2016. All agreed that they had struggled to navigate. the maze of federal stimulus programs, further complicated by limited data sharing between agencies.
Such challenges make it harder for communities, especially vulnerable and smaller communities, to successfully navigate the system, GAO concluded.
This is not new to anyone who has worked with the federal government after a disaster.
“I don’t think it would come as a surprise, probably anyone working in this field,” said Delaware-based economic resilience consultant Kirsten McGregor. “Agency employees come with the best of intentions and they’re frustrated as well.”
Just this week, McGregor spoke to a group of University of Pennsylvania students who were in disbelief that they couldn’t go to a single source to determine how much money had been spent on disaster recovery at a particular location.
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“They’re like, but everything should be there,” she said.
Federal officials have taken earlier steps to address some of the complaints, the GAO said, but challenges remain.
The Obama administration worked to fix some of the problems, but the changes “didn’t stick” afterwards, said Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For example, he mentioned allowing all agencies to share the same historical and environmental reviews. “Why can’t we make one and everyone agrees, you know?”
Although not involved in the analysis, Florida city officials have expressed frustrations with bureaucracy, including rotating federal project managers, repeated trips to document damage, and documents misplaced by authorities. state and federal.
It can be a “scary process,” said Lee Evett, an administrator for the city of Lake Helen, Florida, which has a population of 2,800.
The GAO report lists 11 options for improving disaster response, including developing new ways to communicate federal stimulus programs, models to better coordinate programs, a single application portal, and standardization, simplification and program consolidation. It includes four recommendations for executive action, including efforts to reduce fragmentation between federal programs.
Finally, the GAO recommends that Congress establish an independent commission to recommend reforms.
Experts like the concept of offering technical advisors to help communities understand projects and programs and how they can work together to get things done.
“Vulnerable communities usually don’t have the planning staff to identify the right projects, and even if you give them 100% funding, they don’t always have the staff or the track record to manage the project,” said Fugate. “It’s almost as if the more vulnerable a community is and the fewer resources it has, the higher the bar it has to reach, and that’s usually outside of its management capabilities.”
Evett accepted. “When you have a very small staff, you have to bring in other people,” he said. “When I was in Pueblo, Colorado, we had five CPAs on staff. We have four people in our town hall (from Lake Helen). »
A single application process or a pre-application process for disaster assistance could make things easier and/or a more formal technical assistance program would be beneficial, McGregor said. This could help local governments determine which funding source could help them the most.
“It’s very confusing for local governments. You need people who have certain skills. In a lot of these vulnerable communities, they just don’t have one,” she said. “Disasters get even more expensive when you have to bring people in and pay top dollar.”
Fugate suggested the Department of Labor could help FEMA hire and train local residents in disaster project management, giving the resident new job skills once disaster recovery is complete.
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Even as the government says it wants to cut red tape and deliver more money faster, efforts to tackle allegations of fraud and abuse have complicated disaster recovery for decades, with complex rules and procedures put in place. in place to try to prevent it.
FEMA has taken action after hurricanes Andrew and Katrina reduce fraud and waste in its individual assistance program.
In September, the Ministry of Justice accused 47 people of stealing $250 million earmarked for pandemic relief.
Congress has had a dysfunctional focus on cutting bureaucracy, waste and fraud, Fugate said. “They don’t want red tape and they want full accountability if something goes wrong.”
“They tend to build these programs very tightly coupled to minimize that risk, but that produces more bureaucracy, and Congress has never really been clear or willing to say they’ll accept more risk.” , did he declare. He thinks there is a “sweet spot” where agencies could increase funding, while reducing overhead and bureaucracy.
Getting reimbursed for hauling debris after a storm has proven particularly frustrating for cities and counties. They are required to not only hire FEMA-licensed contractors, but also monitors to observe debris haulers.
Holly Hill, Fla., plans to pay up to $1.4 million for debris hauled out of town after Hurricane Ian, and an additional 25-30% of that cost for monitors to help fill out paperwork required.
“We’re spending a lot more money paying monitors than any debris hauler would have inflated their numbers,” said Holly Hill City Manager Joe Forte. “We avoid fraud at a very, very high cost.”
When Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, most towns in two counties on central Florida’s east coast, Volusia and Flagler, had yet to receive reimbursement for the millions they had spent in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew 11 months earlier.
Fugate said the federal government could take a similar approach to insurance companies.
“There are ways to take the burden off the claimant and put it back on the government,” he said.
FEMA’s policy of providing proof of actual costs delays reimbursement, Fugate said. If a government wants to rebuild a fire station or school at a higher elevation and the damage is below a certain threshold, FEMA will not provide money for it.
If the government operated more like insurance companies, it could step in, look at the replacement cost and write a check to the local government, he said. Then local governments could take the money and use it to build a school or a fire station in a safer location.
“There have to be rules,” Fugate said, “but I think there’s a time when we’re probably better off going: we’ll take more risk and if you cheat we’ll give you justice and they will put you in jail.