FEMA Still Needs to Clarify Disaster-Response Roles, Report Says

A recent GAO report concluded that FEMA has not clarified multiple agencies' roles in large-scale disasters.
A recent GAO report concluded that FEMA has not clarified multiple agencies' roles in large-scale disasters. (David J. Phillip -- Associated Press)
By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009

Almost four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has failed to clarify the responsibilities of different agencies that would respond to such disasters, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

One result is that FEMA lacks assurances that the agencies have improved preparedness since the deadly hurricane in August 2005 exposed numerous flaws in the nation's readiness for large-scale catastrophes.

Among the gaps revealed by the disaster were confusion about the roles of federal, state and local officials; limitations in the help provided to those with special needs, such as nursing home residents; and problems providing food, water and other goods to victims.

Legislation passed by Congress in October 2006 in the aftermath of Katrina charged FEMA with responsibility for developing and implementing a national preparedness system that would ensure the mistakes are not repeated.

The GAO report, which was released last month, finds that while FEMA has made progress in developing such a system, it lacks a plan for assessing improvements.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, said in its response to the GAO report that it generally concurs with the recommendations and is already taking steps to improve.

But the department said that because FEMA lacks authority over other federal agencies and departments or state and local governments, it is unfair to expect the agency to compel compliance with the national preparedness system.

"There is . . . a concern that in a number of areas the report suggests that DHS/FEMA should hold other federal agencies and departments or state, local or tribal governments, accountable for compliance with program requirements," Jerald E. Levine, director of the DHS office responsible for working with GAO, wrote in the response.

The GAO conceded that FEMA lacks authority to compel other agencies to act but said FEMA should nonetheless "instill a shared sense of responsibility and accountability on the part of all stakeholders for the successful development and implementation of the national preparedness system."

The report noted that although the post-Katrina legislation requires FEMA to track corrective actions taken in response to training exercises, it has not done so effectively.

"Without such information, federal agencies cannot be held accountable for implementing corrective actions that aim to improve preparedness," the report said, adding that the problem is not new. A report from the White House in February 2006 said that DHS should ensure that all federal and state entities carry out remedial actions in a timely manner, according to the GAO.

FEMA has not coordinated with other federal departments and agencies to define how improvements will be monitored, according to the report. Based in part on the GAO inquiry, FEMA officials agreed in February that a program management plan should be established, the report added.

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