With hurricane season upon us once again, media stories are raising questions about the nation’s ability to prepare for and respond to major disasters. Just this week, the press reported on a Harvard University research study estimating that more than 4,600 people in Puerto Rico died as a result of Hurricane Maria, rather than the 64 people counted in the official death toll. And Politico chronicled the unfinished and costly rebuilding efforts in Houston, Texas, especially for the region’s most poor.
Without doubt, last year’s list of tragic and powerful disasters tested the nation. Four major hurricanes came ashore within six weeks in the Gulf and Caribbean, a staggering new record. For millions of people living in the paths of these storms, the result was death, injury, illness, and destruction of, or damage to, homes and businesses. The deadliest wildfires in California history struck in October, killing dozens and wiping out whole neighborhoods. Additional disasters were declared for floods, fires, and other events across the nation, which, though smaller in terms of the relative levels of destruction, had a devastating impact on the local communities.
However, 2017 also provided an opportunity to become better prepared for future disasters. The Project On Government Oversight has examined many developments and issues regarding how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies responded to the 2017 disasters.
Here is a summary of what we learned and recommended to the White House and Congress.
- The federal government should do more to prepare for the projected frequency of severe disasters, such as improving interagency coordination and providing more realistic budgeting for disasters.
- FEMA should expand current requirements for stocking emergency commodities, determine locations for expansion of the warehouse network, and ensure that well-vetted contracts are in place for rapid restocking.
- Congress and the White House should provide strong accountability and oversight of disaster-related spending to ensure timely and effective spending and to safeguard the money from fraud and improper diversion.
- FEMA and other agencies must fully adhere to the strategy of using well-vetted, pre-existing contracts for vital supplies and services. This should include providing officials that review proposals with more complete and accurate data about the contractors.
- Congress and the White House should strengthen the federal suspension and debarment system so that taxpayer money is not awarded to poorly performing or corrupt vendors.
BLOGS, ARTICLES, AND TESTIMONY
Preparing for the New Normal in Disaster Response
POGO explored whether the nation does enough to prepare for and respond to disasters. Making such an evaluation is critical because government data shows that the level of devastation caused by disasters in 2017 is not an uncommon problem, but part of an increasing trend for disasters, costing billions of dollars
- The New Normal: The Government Must Do Better With Major Disasters, Tim Manning and Peter Tyler, Government Executive (November 8, 2017)
- POGO Testimony: How Government Can and Should Learn from Previous Disasters (November 15, 2017)
Expanding FEMA’s Disaster Response Warehouses
Earlier this year, POGO staff toured a major FEMA supply center in Frederick, Maryland, that contains critical supplies for use after a disaster strikes. The visit provided important insights into the nation’s ability to respond to disasters. While these warehouses supply a vital service, last year’s hurricanes showed the current limits and the opportunities for expanding FEMA’s capabilities.
- POGO Staff Visit Key Disaster Response Warehouse (March 29, 2018)
Strengthening Disaster Spending Oversight
Congress and the Administration must do more to ensure that federal dollars spent to help rebuild communities and reestablish basic services after a disaster aren’t lost to fraud and improper payments. POGO discusses how agency inspectors general need adequate funding to oversee disaster spending, including the tens of billions of dollars in spending for the 2017 disasters.
- Disaster Relief Needs Oversight to Stop Waste and Fraud (September 6, 2017)
- Starving the Department of Homeland Security Watchdog During a Time of Growing Challenges (December 4, 2017)
- Record-Breaking National Disaster Recovery Budget Should Include Ample Oversight (January 19, 2018)
Improving Federal Contract Practices to Protect Federal Dollars and Ensure More Effective Disaster Response and Recovery
Federal agencies rely heavily on private companies to provide critical goods and services for disaster response and recovery. Whether it’s supplying food and water for disaster victims or repairing the electrical grid, agencies call on the private sector for a variety of goods and services through contracts worth billions of dollars. It is critical that FEMA and other agencies carefully screen contractors to not only protect federal dollars, but to ensure that those recovering from disasters get the services and supplies they need. However, this does not always happen. POGO examined the challenges stemming from the 2017 disasters and recommended steps to improve the process.
- Harvey, Irma, and Maria: Hurricane Recovery Contract Spending by the Numbers (October 20, 2017)
- Puerto Rico Electric Contract Concerning, But Normal (October 27, 2017)
- Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria Contract Spending Revisited (January 8, 2018)
- Homeland Security Falling Short in Managing Risky Contractors (February 8, 2018)
- Unworthy Tribute: FEMA Contract Raises Disaster Preparedness Concerns (February 23, 2018)
- Senate Report Details Major Disaster Response Contracting Failures (April 23, 2018)