Masters of Disaster

As casualties mount, so do the number of agencies involved in the cleanup.

The landscape of disaster management-populated by a massive network of government agencies, businesses, nonprofit groups and faith-based organizations-often is as confusing and overwhelming as a cataclysmic storm.

In April, deadly tornadoes ripped through a swath of the Southeast, prompting the Federal Emergency Management Agency to roll out a massive response across seven states with the help of other agencies. FEMA is the lead agency, but the effort is so widespread at the federal, state and local levels that it's impossible to calculate how many people and organizations are involved in response and recovery. And this was before the Mississippi River flooded scores of towns across the Midwest and South in May.

At the federal level alone, there are 69 programs that deal somehow with disaster relief and recovery, spanning at least 14 agencies, according to the website A partial list includes the Agriculture Department with a whopping 13 disaster assistance programs ranging from crop insurance to farm emergency loans; the Housing and Urban Development Department, which provides housing vouchers to displaced individuals and community development block grants to states; and Small Business Administration, which hands out business, housing and property disaster loans. And that doesn't include the programs administered by the Homeland Security Department, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency resides, offering various types of aid, most notably through its Individuals and Households assistance program.

But there is no institutionalized program office or central authority to officially coordinate the agencies, or compel them to fulfill their recovery roles. The Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding came closest to occupying that role after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and other portions of Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. But an April 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office said some felt the entity lacked sufficient authority. And it was shut down in March 2010 after President Obama twice extended its existence.

The responsibilities of FEMA continue to grow, as does the importance of managing the web of agencies involved in every phase of a disaster. "This distribution of authority and responsibility is understandable-after all, the effects of disasters cut across housing, transportation, public health, infrastructure and many other government functions, and have an equally broad effect on private enterprise," says a March report from advisory firm the Reznick Group. "But this also underscores the need for more comprehensive and effective coordination of response efforts. This need has become more acute, as the expectations placed on FEMA-not only by the public but by state and local agencies-have outstripped the agency's mandate."

The report proposes creating a program office, perhaps within FEMA or the White House, that consists of personnel from across government with experience in disaster recovery and large-scale project management. The office would oversee the transfer of responsibilities among federal agencies from first response to long-term recovery. The study compares such an entity to the Defense Logistics Agency, which manages a supply chain for different agencies. "FEMA is worn out; they get blamed for everything," says Tim Bender, a principal in the government services practice of the Reznick Group, and the author of the report.

While most observers agree that FEMA and the other agencies involved in disaster response and recovery have vastly improved their coordination since 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck, they still struggle with when to hand off responsibilities and how to share information. Effective coordination among the federal agencies involved in disaster recovery helps local and state officials as well as individuals navigate the complex maze of public assistance and loans available to them. It also is important in preventing and recovering improper payments.

"I think every agency is doing what they believe their mission to be. I do think they take their missions very seriously, but I don't know as they act along those lines whether the coordination is exactly where it needs to be," Peggy Gustafson, inspector general at SBA, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery and Intergovernmental Affairs in March. Gustafson said she supported rewriting the portion of the 1974 Stafford Act that deals with duplication of benefits and clarifying the language on coordination for agencies. "I think there is enough ambiguity in the law and the regulations right now that it's not necessarily that they [agencies] don't agree [on their roles], but I think they would be aided by more specific guidance," she said.

The Stafford Act, which outlines FEMA's mission, gives the agency and the president flexibility in handling disasters, but generally the federal government takes its cues from the states and first responders when it comes to providing the assistance needed. The 2006 Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act aimed to tighten coordination among the federal, state and local levels during disaster response and recovery, and enhance FEMA's responsibilities. Congress directed FEMA to create a National Disaster Recovery Framework, which is still in draft form. The plan outlines how the federal agencies involved in disaster response and recovery should coordinate with one another and also with myriad local and state partners.

FEMA and HUD have taken the lead on the plan, and the framework includes a federal recovery coordinator, state recovery coordinators and six recovery support functions "designed to provide a one-stop shop for communities as they deal with infrastructure, housing and other functional areas," the plan states.

For each of the functions-which range from housing to economic development to health, social and community services-the plan lists the coordinating, primary and supporting federal agencies tasked with those responsibilities. Nearly every department has a role. FEMA aimed to launch the final plan in June 2010, but it is still in draft form, partly because last summer's Deepwater oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico took much of the government's attention and resources.

As for the current disaster management framework, FEMA and SBA work particularly closely together, says James Rivera, associate administrator for SBA's Office of Disaster Assistance. The technology systems that FEMA and SBA maintain to keep track of loans and other assistance talk to each other, and SBA is working on a memorandum of understanding with HUD to improve its data sharing. But during the March congressional hearing at least one official cited the Privacy Act as an impediment to coordination. "It makes it real difficult for federal agencies to share information among themselves," said Matt Jadacki, assistant inspector general for emergency management oversight at DHS.

Privacy issues and data sharing aren't the only obstacles. Each agency has its own specialty, and its own ego, which can make coordination difficult under a disaster's already challenging circumstances. "That struggle between agencies that are engaging in budget guarding is a continued source of concern for us," says an aide to Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. Landrieu's office is working on draft legislation with input from federal agencies that would reform certain parts of the Stafford Act and Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act. One proposal is to give the FEMA administrator more authority to break the coordination logjams that occur among agencies.

June 1 marks the official start of hurricane season, but the country and the world already have weathered their fair share of catastrophes this year: a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, flooding along the Mississippi River, wildfires in Texas, those deadly tornadoes ripping through much of the Southeast. The network of disaster management coordination generally works well during smaller-scale disasters, but as Rivera put it: "The true test is a catastrophic event."

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