Four years after Hurricane Katrina, the United States is “dangerously unprepared” for another major disaster with many key functions of disaster preparedness, response, relief, and recovery continuing to lack capacity to deliver core services and programs before and after a major disaster, due to the ineffectiveness of FEMA to sufficiently coordinate over 20 agencies and organizations under the National Response Framework. That’s the conclusion of the Disaster Accountability Project (DAP), which was founded after Hurricane Katrina to improve FEMA, American Red Cross, and the other government agencies and nonprofit organizations responsible for disaster preparedness, response, relief, and recovery.
“FEMA’s leadership is very capable, yet Americans are unnecessarily vulnerable until post-disaster housing, mass care, and disability policy deficiencies are resolved,” said Ben Smilowitz, Executive Director, Disaster Accountability Project in a statement which outlined the group’s recommendations:
Disaster Housing: Interagency Dispute. The President must provide guidance to FEMA and HUD as there is a loud silent debate between the agencies about who is responsible for short-term and long-term housing. While FEMA continues to further develop the National Housing Strategy, progress is snail-paced and FEMA’s own National Advisory Council is calling for the pace to pick up.
Mass Care/American Red Cross: Role Confusion/Capacity Problems. The GAO made it very clear that existing structures responsible for providing Mass Care services after a major disaster do not have the capacity to provide necessary services. While the American Red Cross is no longer the lead agency for Mass Care in the National Response Framework, the organization maintains a lead role in practice.
In the last year alone, the American Red Cross has laid off a significant percentage of staff across the country, significantly widening the ratio of “paid staff” to “unpaid staff,” commonly known as the volunteer. After last hurricane season, the American Red Cross received nearly $100 million from the federal government to cover many of its costs from the last hurricane season and other major disasters. With public and donated funds should also come accountability, transparency, and oversight. There ought to be a national-level conversation about the role of volunteers in disaster response and relief, their strengths and limitations, and viable alternatives or ways professionals can help by augmenting volunteer efforts.
The critical role of local organizations and their ability to reach community members in need cannot be ignored. While these small nonprofits and faith-based organizations do not have the resources for national public service announcements and billion dollar fundraising campaigns, they need access to some of the donated dollars that flow into the coffers of larger organizations able to broadcast commercials across the country. FEMA might consider exploring ways that donated dollars can be split proportionally or that even a small percentage (5-10%) can be used to support the important work of local organizations.
Disability Policy: Not in compliance with Post-Katrina Act. The Disaster Accountability Project strongly urges FEMA to comply with the directives of Section 513 of the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Management Act and create an Office of Disability within the Office of the Administrator and provide this Office with sufficient staff at the national level. The National Disability Coordinator position is now completely unsupported, buried in the employment-oriented Office of Equal Rights, and arguably ineffective for that and many other reasons.
The Disaster Accountability Project echoes the repeated recommendations of FEMA’s National Advisory Council and disability rights groups such as the National Council on Disability, that FEMA create Regional Disability Coordinator positions in each FEMA Region. These recommendations are not only critical for the 54 million-plus individuals with disabilities in the United States, but also to help implement Administrator Fugate and Chief of Staff McNamara’s goal of fully integrating disability and accessibility considerations into mainstream standard operating procedures.
Communications: Hurricane Ike revealed problems. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Ike, the Disaster Accountability Project’s hotline received numerous calls from survivors reporting they did not know where to find Mass Care Services, despite the fact most callers found out about the hotline from Houston-area radio. The public was not receiving steady, detailed county-by-county information about the location of services. It appears that despite post-Katrina federal guidance documents for Disaster Communications including the National Response Framework’s Emergency Support Function 15, Emergency Alert System, and HazCollect updates, there may have been an oversight. The Disaster Accountability Project hopes to begin a conversation about a solution.
DAP recommends that “the FEMA Administrator should be included in Cabinet meetings to cut down on bureaucratic ‘games of telephone’ and so that the President can be the final arbiter of interagency disputes.”
For more information on the Disaster Accountability Project go to its website here or Twitter feed here. The group also maintains a toll-free “tip” line for citizens to report any gaps in disaster preparedness and response at 866-9-TIP-DAP.