Federal Emergency Management Agency

Recommendations and Actions

FEMA02: Develop a More Anticipatory and Customer-Driven Response to Catastrophic Disasters


In 1989, Hurricane Hugo demonstrated that federal efforts are needed in extraordinary disasters to assist in the information- gathering and needs-assessment processes. The ability to respond swiftly and efficiently to such catastrophes can dramatically affect the quality of aid provided to disaster victims.

After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, however, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was criticized for waiting too long to act and for making inaccurate damage assessments. FEMA waited for local and state officials to assess damage and identify needs for federal response assistance. Studies of disaster response efforts during the hurricane by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), and FEMA's Inspector General found that the immediate needs of victims, as well as the need of the general public for a competent presence in the midst of the destruction, went largely unmet.[1]

Under federal law in the Stafford Act, FEMA cannot act until a state governor asks for help in responding to a catastrophe. This inability to act before a governor asks for aid has played a part in impeding quicker responses to disasters by the agency.

FEMA has also interpreted the Stafford Act in the past as a restriction on its mobilization and pre-positioning of resources before a disaster declaration. The agency did little during the several days of warning leading up to Hurricane Andrew to position federal staff, equipment, and supplies for immediate movement to the disaster area. Although a FEMA staff member was present at the Dade County Emergency Operations Center the day after the hurricane, that person did not have the capability or resources to carry out initial response operations and to establish the federal presence required in such a large disaster.[2]

FEMA's field arrangement may also affect its capacity to provide disaster assistance. FEMA operates through the standard federal 10 region structure, which is based on population, not risk, even though some regions have relatively no history of disasters. The 10 regional offices also do not focus on anticipated threats in their respective areas. When a disaster does occur in a region, the agency flies in experts from other areas to help out.[3]

Reducing FEMA regional offices is under consideration by Congress. Senator Barbara Mikulski recently introduced legislation to reduce the number of regional offices from 10 to six, based on NAPA and GAO recommendations. FEMA disagrees. The agency contends that reducing the number of regional offices might impair vital links between the agency and state and local governments. However, FEMA is willing to examine the overall field structure to determine the most effective and efficient way to respond to disasters and to carry out its all-hazards emergency management responsibilities.

The ideal federal role is the provision of emergency assistance to state and local governments and disaster victims. Federal involvement should be anticipatory. It should include the ability to monitor, assess, advise, and provide aid to deal with natural disasters at the earliest appropriate time. Good relationships with governors, particularly in states where disasters happen more often, would be improved if FEMA were organized to be more flexible and responsive.


1. Where cost-effective, FEMA should establish rapid-response teams to monitor catastrophes, assess damage, and advise governors and the President.

An early federal disaster response can prevent suffering and save money. Where needed and desired by state governors, FEMA should establish and dispatch rapid-response ground assessment teams to the field. The teams' mission should include: (1) estimates of the nature and extent of damage and probable relief needs; (2) advice to governors and the President on appropriate action needed, either before a disaster (when there is advance warning) or immediately thereafter; and (3) planning for and prediction of the effects of various disasters when the team is not actively engaged in assistance efforts.[4]

The teams should include personnel from FEMA and other agencies with expertise on the particular type of disaster, as well as state and local experts familiar with the pre-disaster condition. FEMA has already issued a report on development of ground assessment teams and aerial reconnaissance options. Rapid-response teams would increase the agency's ability to speed initial estimates into the hands of the governors and the President, so that an accurate assessment of the situation can be made.

FEMA is also working with the National Governors Association to provide liaisons to work with governors when disasters strike. To be most effective, the liaisons should work to establish relationships with governors before disasters occur.

2. Where cost-effective, FEMA should mobilize and pre-position people and supplies in anticipation of catastrophes.

Modern technology facilitates the prediction of some potential catastrophes. Without some movement of assets and supplies during this critical warning period, however, rapid federal assistance in a large disaster is impossible. The mobilization and pre-positioning of people and supplies would improve FEMA's ability to prepare for and respond quickly to a catastrophe. Confusion exists, however, about the legality, and with it the cost effectiveness, of pre-positioning supplies. Legislation should be enacted to clarify that FEMA can pre- position supplies for use in an emergency.

Positioning supplies and staff close enough to the site of a disaster, but out of harm's way, is still a logistical problem. It is also no assurance that those resources will be put to use, since predicted events may not occur.

In 1992, after one devastating typhoon, Guam appeared to be in the path of a second, Typhoon Brian, with predicted winds of 160 miles per hour. Based on the likely damage to Guam, FEMA sent people and supplies to Hawaii. By the time Typhoon Brian hit land, however, its winds had subsided to 35 miles per hour. Pre-positioning, therefore, should only occur when a catastrophe can be predicted with a reasonable degree of reliability.

3. FEMA should reexamine its field structure in relation to the agency's mission.

The agency should consider a structure consistent with:

---the agency's mission and goals,

---Workload appropriate to the location, and

---cost effectiveness.

The examination should evaluate the need for FEMA's regional offices and all field structures, including satellite offices, antenna fields, and storage facilities.

4. FEMA should establish regional centers of excellence.

The current situation in which all regional offices mirror each other's capabilities is redundant and wasteful. The regional office best suited to deal with a particular type of disaster should be the lead center for such disasters.

For example, the regional office in California could develop a center of excellence specializing in earthquakes, while the Georgia office could establish one focused on hurricanes. Experts could be flown to a disaster area in regions without a center of excellence corresponding to the particular disaster involved.

The centers would encourage employees to take ownership of and excel in a specific area, and result in more economical use of resources. The concept could be adopted without compromising the agency's all-hazard policy, since regional offices would still be able to engage in the mitigation and preparation activities required, regardless of the particular threat.

Fiscal Impact

The fiscal impact cannot be determined at this time, although long-term savings should be realized from more effective disaster mitigation through rapid-response teams and pre-positioning of supplies and resources. Operating costs should be reduced by more efficient use of field resources through regional restructuring and centers of excellence.


1. See Odeen, Philip A., Panel Chair, National Academy of Public Administration, Coping with Catastrophe: Building an Emergency Management System to Meet People's Needs in Natural and Man-made Disasters (Washington, D.C., February 1993). U.S. General Accounting Office, Disaster Assistance: Timeliness and Other Issues Involving the Major Disaster Declaration Process (Washington, D.C.: General Accounting Office (GAO), May 1989); U.S. General Accounting Office, Disaster Assistance: Federal, State, and Local Responses to Natural Disasters Need Improvement (Washington, D.C.: GAO, March 1991); U.S. General Accounting Office, Disaster Management: Improving the Nation's Response to Catastrophic Disasters (Washington, D.C.: GAO, July 1993); and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Office of the Inspector General, FEMA's Disaster Management Program: A Performance Audit After Hurricane Andrew (Washington, D.C., January 1993), pp. 100-106.

2. FEMA, Office of the Inspector General, FEMA's Disaster Management Program, p. 69.

3. Interviews with staff in the State and Local Programs and Support directorate and the National Preparedness directorate, General Accounting Office, Washington, D.C., April-July 1993.

4. GAO, Disaster Assistance: Timeliness and Other Issues, pp. 1-5.

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