Natural Disasters and FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program

Image of a hurricaneIn September 2018, Hurricane Florence brought record-setting floods to the Carolinas and another major deployment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The numbers aren’t in yet on Florence’s impact, but in 2017, California wildfires, Atlantic hurricanes and other natural disasters affected about 25.8 million people in the United States.

About 4.7 million of them applied for help from FEMA’s Individual Assistance program, and the agency provided over $2 billion to help them meet immediate needs such as shelter and medical assistance.

So, how exactly does FEMA’s Individual Assistance program work and how is it performing? Our recent review of the program found some room for improvement, such as more consistent evaluation of applications. Today’s WatchBlog explores.

Immediate aftermath

Following a disaster, governors or tribal chief executives may request that the federal government declare a disaster so that FEMA can provide assistance under any (or all) of the five Individual Assistance programs:

  • Direct assistance to individuals and families
  • Crisis counseling
  • Legal services
  • Disaster case management
  • Disaster unemployment assistance

Recommendations

After a state or tribe requests a disaster declaration, FEMA’s regional office evaluates the request and makes a regional recommendation, which is submitted to FEMA headquarters.  FEMA headquarters makes a recommendation to the President based on these 6 factors:

  • Degree of trauma to the community (e.g., injuries or deaths)
  • Presence of special populations (e.g., low-income or elderly populations)
  • Concentration of damages (e.g., the number of damaged homes)
  • Availability of voluntary agency assistance
  • Available insurance coverage
  • Average amount of Individual Assistance by state

Presidential declaration

FEMA headquarters weighs these factors and recommends to the President whether a disaster declaration is warranted. The President then makes the final decision to approve or deny the request to declare an emergency.

Figure showing Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Major Disaster Declaration Process

FEMA received 294 declaration requests for Individual Assistance during 2008-2016. Of these requests, the President declared 168 disasters, and FEMA obligated about $8.6 billion in Individual Assistance to 46 states and territories.

Figure Showing Federal emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Individual Assistance (IA) Actual Obligations by Regions for Disaster Declarations Made from Calendar Years 2008 through 2016

(Excerpted from GAO-18-366, click here for figure with notes)

Room for improvement

However, we reviewed FEMA’s Individual Assistance process and found that the regional offices did not consistently obtain and document information on all 6 of the factors when making recommendations. Doing so could help FEMA ensure it is achieving its stated goals in providing consistency in the evaluation process and in the types of factors it considers.

We recommended that FEMA evaluate why its regional offices are not fully documenting each element of the current Individual Assistance regulatory factors, and take corrective steps if necessary.

To learn more about the Individual Assistance process, check out the full report.


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