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The Disaster Recovery System in the United States

The timelines, funding levels and complexities of federal disaster recovery funding.

by Eric Holdeman / October 15, 2019

Jerry Quinn, a disaster recovery expert who I have quoted before in this blog, was responding in writing to a reporter who was trying to learn a bit more about the topic. I thought the points he made are very relevant to all of us as we wait for the next disaster to strike our jurisdiction or organization. 

See his remarks below, which I think you will find enlightening: 

"Major disasters are commonly once in a career. While California has been unlucky the past 2 years, several counties had not dealt with FEMA Public Assistance (PA) in 19 years. I think all but 5 CA counties have been declared since January 2017. One county in 6 of 9 declarations.

FEMA PA is a rule-bound grant program. The shortest definition I can provide is 75=37.5. PA pays not less than 75% but almost 50% of response & recovery activity expenses are ineligible ($0.00 federal share). Federal procurement and environmental clearance slow recovery big time. Congress & OMB appear to like it this way. Interest costs are not reimbursed. Small projects are paid within 6-8 weeks of obligation but that might be 4-6 months after cost incurred. A California county just got a debris removal obligation 4 years after costs were incurred.

The Clinton capitation makes it hard for high-population states to get declarations.

FEMA is SLOW. For California’s most recent declarations the 1 obligations took over 4 months and then another 6-8 weeks until paid to political subdivision. The Loma Prieta earthquake declaration was declared complete at 24 years. (Some other federal disaster assistance programs must await congressional appropriations and make FEMA look fast)

FEMA is provider of last resort; according to the annual EMPG report FEMA is activated (@ major disaster declaration level) in less than 2% of major emergencies and disasters reported by the states & locals. For federal fiscal year 2019 (ended 9/30) the average presidential major disaster declaration took 65 days (after incident start) to obtain (disaster lag). The longest lag was over 200 days. That is a lot of uncertainty to deal with.

FEMA with the declared state schedules briefings within 4-6 weeks of a new declaration. Then they staff up. Then they start field reviews with applicants. (Still working on damages created in early 2017; other 2017 projects just reimbursed after 24-30 months). The first reimbursements to applicants are 4–6 months after a declaration.

FEMA’s Portal “delivery” system is a SLOTH! Process more important than progress. It is Big Brother personified; everything date/time stamped. FEMA can fix its own mistakes but applicants have only 5 days to remove incorrect information. Applicants are provided a 1-hour briefing on how it works. Portal federal jargon by dropdown menu forces choices — no way to enter local or professional jargon)

FEMA’s guidance documents, interpretations and appeal determinations consume thousands of pages. I work in it full time and still get surprises.

The most important thing I do is study the FEMA program full time. The first time I dealt with FEMA, I was drowning most of the time. For the first-timer, there is a lot they can only just react to. Retroactivity — I can't undo actions already undertaken.

Rule & precedent knowledge contribute to quicker obligation of $$. Rule & precedent knowledge contribute to successful appeal determinations. Rule & precedent knowledge avoid or overcome the creative interpretations of DHS “auditors” most are not CPAs or certified auditors. Occasionally, long-term professional relationships help.

FEMA has become much more difficult and now has hundreds of lawyers involved in the grant process. This has not been an improvement.

Lots more consultants since the Clinton administration. Bigger [emergency management consulting] firms get experience as contractors to FEMA and then go after local agencies."

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