What if federal disaster response efforts were evaluated based on outcomes?
In the immediate response to a natural disaster, the federal government has established a reasonably effective process for mobilizing emergency response resources to those states that need them most. When it comes to long-term recovery, however, success is often measured by the number of dollars allocated and the process of obligating funding, rather than tangible outcomes for affected communities. As a result, the impact of those efforts on the ground is often too little, too late, and too costly. In fact, many states still have open legacy disasters dating back 20 years that have not been closed out.
Since Hurricane Maria touched down in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017—killing almost 3,000 people in the deadliest natural disaster on American soil in over 100 years—the federal government has allocated more than $67 billion to support the island. On the surface it is an historic contribution that has the potential to facilitate significant progress for the island’s recovery efforts.
According to its Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience, however, only 27% of the funds—or about $18.3 billion—have been distributed as of March 1st 2021, to address an estimated $90 billion in damage.
How can we balance the need for speed and agility in our disaster recovery efforts with the need to ensure accuracy and precision in how the funding dollars are spent? It helps to start with an understanding of why the bureaucracy exists in the first place.
Why is there so much red tape in federal disaster relief?
As those who have worked in the disaster management field understand, the aftermath of a natural disaster is challenging. Hard-hit communities are thrown into emergency mode, tasked with navigating short-term response activities while setting the stage for long-term recovery. Crucial to all these efforts is relief aid, which the federal government allocates to help communities meet their immediate needs.
Of course, federal and local agencies have a responsibility to avoid fraud, waste, and abuse of these government resources—and it takes time to ensure proper utilization of funds (especially given the complex mix of funding sources involved in disaster recovery).
But delays can also arise when projects are handed off from one federal agency to another, often with different bureaucratic processes and requirements. Other hurdles can develop when it comes to matching fund requirements between federal and state or local agencies, as well as National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements, which can delay projects during environmental studies and reviews. Record keeping can also be challenging after a disaster, especially when the power grid and communications are out of service, making it difficult to calculate the precise costs of emergency repairs.
Given these complexities—and the sizable allocations involved—there are clearly no easy answers. And the way that efforts are currently measured contributes to the problem.
How the federal government evaluates its efforts today
The FEMA regulatory process and guidance is highly complicated as a re-imbursement program rather than a more simplified block grant program. The process requires costly checks and negotiations where every dime is scrutinized at all levels. While this rigor may help to better ensure proper fund management, it significantly increases the cost of rebuilding and delays both materials and labor costs that rise unpredictably. This inflates the cost of rebuilding well past the value of the property being restored. Over the years it has been widely recognized that the administrative costs for FEMA and all levels of government to manage the Public Assistance program have skyrocketed.
The program measurements reported to Congress are focused on the number of project worksheets started, submitted, approved, and the dollars allocated, just to name a few. FEMA tried to reform the PA program process a few years ago by centralizing project worksheet reviews and allowing for more upfront funding and grouped projects under section 428. On the surface this seemed a reasonable idea. Instead, it has driven up the federal workforce, as combined projects under 428 are seeing increasing review delays.
“If we continue the process the way we're doing it now, where the evaluation is based on how you process it up to a point, and that's how your efficiency is determined, we're no better off,” says Albert Blankenship, the vice president of disaster management for ICF.
“If it's evaluated by how many homes and buildings are actually rebuilt or repaired, and how many are mitigated—if your outcomes are your measurement, and you're evaluated based on those outcomes, it’s a game-changer.”
Two ways to reform the disaster recovery process
With this context in mind, here are ways to improve the disaster recovery process and achieve real outcomes—while balancing speed, scale, and oversight priorities.
Have recipients and subrecipients take the lead and make recovery a state and local responsibility—again
Federal agencies often perform their own field inspections and cost estimates for projects prior to fund obligation and make it difficult for local authorities to contribute to those efforts, further hampering their progress. The current process requires a large ramp-up of a fully supported federal labor force that rotates frequently. The transition from response to recovery is often impeded by policy changes, logistics, and staffing.
Beginning field inspections and establishing a Combined Resource Center, or CRC, takes time and prolongs the initiation of the recovery process. “If a recipient and subrecipient were willing to take it on and could use their own engineers and contractors, they would move at a much faster pace, because they would not have to wait in queue on someone else’s schedule and would be pressure-driven to get to tangible results, as opposed to just reaching the mission complete obligation point,” says Blankenship.
According to Marko Bourne, senior vice president of strategic initiatives and disaster management for ICF—and a former senior leader and director of policy at FEMA—there are a handful of states that continue to have established state-wide disaster assistance programs to manage disasters rather than solely relying on the federal government. Those that have taken the initiative of doing so are typically larger states with a higher volume of weather-related events, such as Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—and despite having state-run IA or PA programs, even they are not immune to bureaucratic challenges at the federal level.
“The rub with them is FEMA then discounts them in terms of their ability to get a disaster declaration, because it’s harder for them, under FEMA’s eye, to claim they need federal assistance, as it has not ‘exceeded their capabilities’,” he says.
“The vast majority of the costs of disasters, both from an actual implementation and a bureaucratic perspective, comes in recovery, that’s where the money gets spent; $30 million upfront turns into $3 billion on the recovery end,” says Bourne. “There is still a Constitutional and federal and state statute responsibility that says response and recovery is a state and local priority, and the federal programs are supplementary. For many decades recovery was that way, but over the past 25 years, it’s become a federally process-driven activity, as opposed to a support activity.”
To improve the speed and efficiency of those efforts, state and local governments need to be willing and able to take a more active role and prioritize state tax dollars toward managing most disasters themselves, to maximize federal aid. Federal agencies, meanwhile, need to be evaluated based on real-world outcomes, not financial commitments, and measures of activity.
Rebuild for resiliency
Disaster-prone communities are tasked with building more resilient infrastructure to weather the next major storm while still recovering from the previous one. A near-impossible task, to be sure.
But by placing the appropriate emphasis on infrastructure throughout the recovery process, communities can make real progress. Puerto Rico, for example, is folding this “rebuilding for resiliency” concept into its recovery efforts. It was listed as a key priority for Manuel Laboy, the former secretary for the Department of Economic Development and Commerce of Puerto Rico and current executive director of COR3, during a panel hosted by ICF in early March.
“We are moving now at full speed toward full recovery when it comes to permanent reconstruction, the permanent work that is going to allow us to modernize the infrastructure of Puerto Rico in the years to come,” he said, adding that the island is still “actively managing this disaster” more than three and a half years later.
A more meaningful way to measure success
So long as efforts are measured by the process and size of the fund, rather than the actual completed outcomes on the ground, the costs will continue to escalate, and recovery will get further delayed, causing additional economic and societal hardships. By shifting more responsibility to state and local recipients and baking resiliency considerations into the recovery process, we can make improvements to both the speed and cost of recovery—while allowing the federal government to provide needed support. But if we’re going to better manage natural disasters in the future, we need to rethink how we’re evaluating the success of recovery efforts.