Hurricane Katrina: 10 Years after the Storm

weatherIt’s been a decade since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. In that time, we’ve examined almost every aspect of federal recovery efforts following the storm. Today, we look back at some of that work and explore how to reduce the costs of future disasters.

Keeping a pulse on health care

Within months of Hurricane Katrina striking the Louisiana-Mississippi coast, we were on the ground assessing New Orleans’ health care system. Over the next several years, we reported on numerous topics, including hospital and nursing home evacuation and shortcomings in federal evacuation assistance. We reported in 2006, for example, that federal help for evacuating hospital patients wasn’t set up to deal with nursing homes. The Department of Health and Human Services took multiple steps to address our recommendations for assisting nursing home residents, such as contracting with ground and air ambulances in hurricane-prone regions.

Rebuilding education

To help students continue their education after losing their homes or schools to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Congress appropriated over $800 million in Emergency Impact Aid.

GAO-11-839 EIAP(Excerpted from GAO-11-839)

While some states and districts told us for our 2011 report that they were generally pleased with the support provided by the Department of Education, others didn’t think the assistance was enough. In addition, other districts had to return funds when, for example, they couldn’t accurately count the number of displaced students in their schools.

Helping survivors  

A few years after Katrina, we examined federal assistance offered to several thousand Katrina survivors still living in FEMA-provided trailers who needed help with permanent housing, jobs, transportation, and other services. We found that federal aid efforts were hampered not only by the level of destruction, which made it difficult to place temporary housing near supermarkets and services, but also by a lack of information about the people needing help.

Getting transit agencies back on track

Major storms can cause major disruptions to transit by destroying buses, disrupting routes, and otherwise derailing operations. After the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes, FEMA and the Federal Transit Administration faced challenges providing timely and effective assistance to transit agencies. For example, FEMA took up to 4 months to decide what types of transit services to fund, in part because officials lacked guidance.

In 2008, we made recommendations, including to clarify what types of assistance FEMA will or will not fund following disasters. As a result, the federal government may now be in GAO-11-839a better position to provide immediate post-disaster transit assistance.

Alerting the public

During an emergency, information is critical. In 2004, FEMA started work on a nationwide emergency public alert system. While other systems existed, this one was intended to integrate federal and state alerts into a single system to more efficiently notify the public, including by TV, radio, and text message.

Despite improvements in the system’s capabilities, a nationwide test identified problems, and state and local officials told us of challenges in testing and implementing the system. In 2013, we made recommendations to improve the testing of the nationwide system. We will follow FEMA’s progress to help ensure this important system functions as intended.

Planning for extreme weather events

Looking ahead, some agencies have begun considering how to minimize damage from extreme weather events. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently issued guidance on evaluating the effects of projected sea-level changes on its dams, levees, and other water-resource infrastructure projects. However, as we reported in July, the Corps isn’t required to perform systematic, national risk assessments on other types of infrastructure, such as hurricane barriers and floodwalls, nor has it done so.

Reducing costs

The nation is spending more federal dollars on natural disasters. When a president declares a major disaster, that triggers federal spending that flows to states, local governments, households, individuals, and more. From fiscal years 2004 to 2011, presidents declared 539 major disasters for which FEMA obligated more than $80 billion—roughly half for Hurricane Katrina alone.

GAO-12-838(Excerpted from GAO-12-838)

We’ve made multiple recommendations on ways to save money. For example, in 2012 we recommended reducing FEMA’s rising administrative costs and improving the way it determines whether a state needs federal assistance to recover from a major disaster.

We also continue to encourage federal efforts to help the nation prepare for, recover from, and adapt to future disasters. As we again reported in 2015, “disaster resilience and hazard mitigation” could help limit the costs of recovering from disasters. Listen to Chris Currie, a director in GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice team, explain:

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Podcast on Federal Employee Engagement

IMG_0154It shouldn’t be surprising that both private and public organizations perform better when employees are more engaged—that is, committed to the mission and organization. But after peaking in 2011, federal employee engagement has declined, primarily at several large agencies.

In a recent report, we identified 6 key drivers of federal employee engagement.

GAO-15-585 (Excerpted from GAO-15-585)

Robert Goldenkoff, a director in GAO’s Strategic Issues team, talks about how agencies can build on these drivers to become more successful.

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National Immunization Awareness Month

logo_250Let’s face it: no one likes getting shots. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccinations help protect everyone from infants to elderly people against all sorts of dangerous and potentially lethal diseases.

Each August the CDC and others raise awareness about immunizations. So today, for National Immunization Awareness Month, we’re taking a look at some of our work related to the topic.

Lining up the shots

Routinely recommended vaccinations for children include those to prevent measles and whooping cough (pertussis). Vaccines are also recommended for adults to protect against flu, pneumonia, tetanus, and other diseases.

The shingles vaccine is specifically recommended for older adults. Shingles is a viral infection caused by a reactivation of the chicken pox virus. It produces a painful, blistering rash and affects about 1 million individuals each year, particularly those over 60 years old.

Coverage for kids…

The State Children’s Health Insurance Program requires its plans to cover routine immunizations. CHIP has provided coverage for more than 8 million children in low-income families that don’t have health insurance but make too much money to qualify for Medicaid.

The good news is that kids covered by CHIP generally seem to have the same coverage of their routine shots as other children, which we found by comparing coverage for medical care in CHIP plans to some new plans created under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 5 states.

…and adults

Medicare offers different coverage for different vaccines. The flu and pneumonia vaccines are typically free to beneficiaries—primarily older adults. Some other vaccines can vary in cost to beneficiaries.

In 2011, we looked at coverage of routinely recommended vaccinations in Medicare. We found that many of the almost 22 million people enrolled in Medicare’s prescription drug benefit didn’t get their routinely recommended vaccinations, like the one to prevent shingles.

Part of the reason they didn’t get the shingles vaccine was because more than 60 percent of physicians and pharmacies did not stock it, back in 2011 when we issued the report.

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The Short Tenure of the Second Watchdog in Chief, Fred H. Brown

We’ve already introduced you to the first U.S. Comptroller General, John R. McCarl. While McCarl set the course for GAO, his successor didn’t have much time to fill those substantial shoes. Today’s WatchBlog shares the short tenure (1939–1940) of the second CG, Fred H. Brown.

Life before GAO

Despite not having much time to leave a mark on GAO, Fred H. Brown was one of the more colorful—or at least athletic—CGs to-be. Born in 1879 in New Hampshire, he was an avid athlete. He not only Continue reading

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Podcast on Drones in the National Airspace

GAO Podcast IconWithout onboard pilots, drones fly by either remote control or along preprogrammed routes. Commercial uses for these unmanned aerial systems are growing, from wedding photographers snapping aerial photos to companies testing them for delivering goods. Continue reading

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GAO’s Technology Assessments: 3D Printing

Technology_Assessment_MedallionYou may be familiar with our traditional reports, testimonies, and legal decisions, but do you know about our technology assessments? Today’s WatchBlog explains them before highlighting our recent look at 3D printing.

What are technology assessments? Continue reading

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How Is SSA Keeping Up at 80?

SS+Cards-4Eighty years after FDR signed it into existence, the Social Security Administration is managing one of the nation’s largest social safety nets. SSA oversees hundreds of billions in benefits paid to around 60 million retired or disabled Americans every year.

While much of the conversation about Social Security focuses on its projected financial shortfall, SSA faces additional challenges Continue reading

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(Not) Taking Care of Business at DOD

thumbnail_defenseDefending the nation involves much more than combat and weaponry. The Department of Defense spends billions each year managing the business side of its operations. And like the threats to our nation, the nature of business is constantly evolving. That’s one key reason why DOD’s approach to business transformation has been on our High Risk List since Continue reading

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Podcast on U.S. Assistance to Address Unaccompanied Child Migration

GAO Podcast IconIn fiscal year 2014, more than 73,000 unaccompanied children—mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. These children face a host of challenges in their home countries, such as extreme violence and persistent poverty. Continue reading

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Majoring in the Military with ROTC

thumbnail_defenseBecoming a military officer takes serious preparation and training. Today’s WatchBlog looks at our review of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program, the largest source of newly commissioned officers.

Origin of an officer

Nearly half of new active-duty officers come through ROTC, Continue reading

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