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Public officials across the country sometimes call the recovery from a federally declared major disaster the “disaster after the disaster.” Navigating the maze of federal programs that offer assistance and funding can be complicated, frustrating and prolonged.
Meanwhile, disasters occur more often than they used to and that’s expected to increase as climate change causes more extreme and more frequent weather events. Since 2018, disasters have been declared in every state, the five major territories and the District of Columbia.
A new report out this week from the Government Accounting Office recognizes all this and suggests some course corrections. But experts say trying to simplify the complex mix of agencies and reporting requirements won’t be easy.
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More than 30 federal entities play some role in disaster recovery, helping state, local and tribal governments to rebuild and redevelop. Functioning under a hodgepodge of rules, regulations and policies, they’ve doled out $593 billion of assistance since 2005.
They continue to work on wrapping up the final paperwork on disasters dating back to 2004.
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The GAO talked with officials in five states and 14 local governments about their recovery from nine major disasters, including hurricanes Sandy, Harvey, Florence and Maria, the 2018 California wildfires and flooding in West Virginia in 2016. All agreed they had experienced challenges in navigating the maze of federal recovery programs, further complicated by limited data sharing between agencies.
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Such challenges make it harder for communities, especially vulnerable and smaller communities, to successfully navigate the system, the GAO concluded.
This isn't new information to anyone who has worked with the federal government after a disaster.
“I don’t think any of it would surprise, probably anybody who works in this sphere,” said Kirsten McGregor, an economic resilience consultant based in Delaware. “Agency employees come to it with the best intentions and they get frustrated as well.”
Just this week, McGregor talked with a group of University of Pennsylvania students who were incredulous they couldn’t go to a single source to figure out how much money had been spent on disaster recovery in a particular location.
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“They're like, but it should just all be out there,” she said.
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Federal officials have taken previous steps to address some of the complaints, the GAO said, but challenges remain.
The Obama administration worked to address some of the issues, but the changes “didn’t stick” afterwards, said Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For example, he mentioned allowing all agencies to share the same historical and environmental reviews. "Why can't we just do one and everybody agrees to it, you know?"
Although not involved in the analysis, officials in Florida cities have vented frustrations over bureaucracy including revolving federal project managers, repeated trips to document damage and paperwork misplaced by state and federal officials.
It can be an “agonizing process,” said Lee Evett, a city administrator in Lake Helen, Florida, population 2,800.
The GAO report lists 11 options for improving disaster response, including developing new ways to communicate about federal recovery programs, models to better coordinate across programs, a single application portal and standardizing, simplifying and consolidating programs. It includes four recommendations for executive action, including efforts to reduce fragmentation between federal programs.
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Finally, the GAO recommends Congress establish an independent commission to recommend reforms.
Experts like the concept of offering technical advisors to help communities understand the projects and programs and how they can work together to get things done.
“Vulnerable communities generally don’t have the planning staff to identify good projects, and even if you give them 100% funding, they don’t always have the staff or the track record to do the project management,” Fugate said. “It’s almost like the more vulnerable a community is and the lower resources they have, the higher bar they have to reach, and it’s generally outside of their capabilities to manage.”
Evett agreed. “When you have a very small staff, you have to bring in other people,” he said. “When I was in Pueblo, Colorado, we had five CPAs on staff. We have four people in our (Lake Helen) City Hall.”
A single application process or a pre-application process for disaster assistance could make things easier and/or a more formal program for providing technical assistance would be beneficial, McGregor said. It could help the local governments figure out which source of funding could help them the most.
“It’s very confusing for local governments. You need people who have certain skill sets. In a lot of these vulnerable communities, they just don’t have it,” she said. “Disasters get even more expensive when you have to bring people in and pay them top dollar.”
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Fugate suggested the Department of Labor could help FEMA hire and train local residents to do project management when disasters arrive, giving the resident new job skills once disaster recovery is over.
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Even while the government says it wants to reduce red tape and provide more money faster, efforts to combat allegations of fraud and abuse have complicated disaster recovery for decades, with intricate rules and procedures put in place to try to prevent it.
FEMA took steps after hurricanes Andrew and Katrina to reduce fraud and waste in its individual assistance program.
In September, the Justice Department charged 47 people with stealing $250 million meant for pandemic relief.
Congress has had polarized dysfunction on reducing red tape, waste and fraud, Fugate said. "They want no red tape and they want full accountability if anything goes wrong."
“They tend to build these very tightly coupled programs to minimize that risk, but that produces more red tape, and Congress has never really been clear or been willing to say they’ll accept more risk," he said. He thinks there’s a “sweet spot” where agencies could increase funding, while reducing overhead and red tape.
Getting reimbursed for debris hauling after a storm has proven particularly frustrating for cities and counties. They’re required to not only hire FEMA-approved contractors but also monitors to observe the debris haulers.
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Holly Hill, Florida, expects to pay up to $1.4 million for debris hauled away from the city after Hurricane Ian, and another 25% to 30% of that cost for monitors who will help complete the required paperwork.
“We’re spending a lot more money paying for monitors than any debris hauler would have inflated their numbers by,” said Holly Hill City Manager Joe Forte. “We’re avoiding fraud at a very, very expensive cost.”
When Hurricane Irma arrived in 2017, most of the cities in two counties on the east Central Florida coast, Volusia and Flagler, hadn’t received any reimbursement yet for the millions they’d spent in the wake of Hurricane Matthew 11 months earlier.
Fugate said the federal government could adopt a method similar to insurance companies.
“There are ways to take the burden off the applicant and put it back on the government,” he said.
FEMA’s policy to provide proof of actual costs delays reimbursement, Fugate said. If a government wants to rebuild a fire station or school at a higher elevation and the damage was under a certain threshold, FEMA won’t provide any money for that.
If the government functioned more like insurance companies, they could go in, look at the replacement cost and cut the local government a check, he said. Then local governments could take the money and use it toward building a school or fire station in a safer location.
“There’s got to be rules,” Fugate said, “but I think there’s a point at which we’re probably better off going: We will accept more risk and if you cheat, we're gonna give you the justice and they're gonna put you in jail.”
NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information reported that 20 weather disasters in 2021 had losses of over one billion dollars each in the U.S. Topping the list, Hurricane Ida resulted in an estimated $75 billion in damages in September 2021
Wesstern drought caused an estimated $8.9 billion dollars in damages in 2021. The tall bleached "bathtub ring" is visible on the rocky banks of Lake Powell at Reflection Canyon on June 24, 2021 in Lake Powell, Utah. In June 2021, Lake Powell was at 34.56 percent of capacity, a historic low.
An atmospheric river in late January 2021 dumped heavy rains and caused flooding and mudslides in areas already ravaged by wildfires. A section of scenic Highway 1 collapsed near Big Sur, Calif. Overall damages from the intense rains cost an estimated $1.2 billion in damages.
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Hurricane Nicholas produced flooding rainfall as it moved slowly along the Gulf coast of Texas producing an estimated $1 billion in damages.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Disaster after the disaster: A maze of 30 federal entities complicate recovery after tragedy, report finds
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