Letter to FEMA on Improving Disaster Response and Recovery

Based on experience and feedback provided from states and territories we have compiled the following recommendations for reform in disaster response and recovery.

The Honorable Deanne Criswell
Federal Emergency Management Agency
500 C Street S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20024

Dear Administrator Criswell,

The Council of Governors Emergency Management and Disaster Response Work Group has identified disaster policy reform and long-term recovery as priorities. To further these efforts, the Work Group conducted a survey to identify challenges, gaps, promising policies, and best practices related to disaster response and recovery. A total of 27 states and territories responded to the survey. Many of the responses highlighted similar challenges including the complexities of navigating assistance for individuals, businesses, and communities impacted by disasters; communication and coordination between various federal stakeholders; the length of time from incident to recovery; as well as the changing nature, frequency, and complexity of disasters. Broadly, states and territories emphasized the need to make systemic changes to disaster response and recovery programs that lessen administrative burdens on disaster victims. Based on our experiences and the feedback provided from states and territories we have compiled the following recommendations for reform in disaster response and recovery:

  • Remove barriers that lead to inequitable outcomes in individual assistance. While well- intended, FEMA has a number of eligibility requirements for individual assistance that can prevent some disaster victims from accessing the program. For example, the requirement that a property be connected to utilities in order to qualify for direct housing assistance can prevent impacted individuals who were not connected to utilities prior to a disaster from receiving assistance. Many of these individuals are part of low-income and/or minority communities, some of which have a long cultural tradition of maintaining a lifestyle unconnected to public works. The federal government should take steps to ensure that the most in need individuals are able to receive assistance while still working toward best practices in resilience.
  • Simplify the process for individuals, businesses, and communities to seek assistance. The federal government offers a wide range of programs across more than 30 federal entities that assist individuals, businesses, and communities after a disaster. For example, more than 60 federal programs were used to support the response to Hurricane Sandy alone. However, there is significant variation in program availability based on the circumstances of a particular disaster in addition to differences in eligibility and allowable uses across programs. As a result, it is difficult for those impacted by disasters to know what assistance they are eligible for and to navigate through multiple program applications and processes to successfully obtain that assistance. The administrative burden of the current process can leave the most in need individuals with the fewest resources unable to obtain available support. A universal application process for federal assistance across agencies would ease the administrative burden on impacted individuals and communities and could eventually streamline the amount of administrative work done by the federal government. Additionally, developing a support structure to aid disaster victims in navigating disaster programs across multiple federal agencies is critical to ensuring that impacted individuals get the help they need quickly and can appropriately leverage all available sources of funding and make informed decisions about which programs best meet their needs. Currently, there is no “one-stop shop” for federal disaster programs, which forces impacted individuals, businesses, and communities to research potential sources of support and then approach multiple federal agencies separately at a time when they may lack access to technology or other resources. Disaster victims should not be asked to carry such a burden in their time of need.
  • Increase coordination of federal agencies participating in disaster response and recovery and ensure there is clear federal authority sufficient for coordination of recovery efforts. While FEMA has significant authorities during the response phase and does assign Federal Coordinating Officers for the duration of a disaster, their authority is less clear during the recovery phase. Given the frequently lengthy duration of recovery, it is vital that a federal agency have the necessary authority to reach across the federal government and coordinate ongoing recovery efforts. Further, concrete steps must be taken to create a clear system for coordination amongst federal agencies in the recovery phase at the individual and community level, with an eye toward sustainable, long-term recovery. This should include clearly identifying staff at relevant agencies that are assigned to and responsible for recovery, both at the program level and for specific disasters.
  • Provide additional federal support to states and territories, as needed, based on local capacity. Local partnership is critical to successful recovery from disasters; however, local capacity varies significantly across communities. While many of the current funding and support opportunities are based on population, states and territories facing disasters uncommon in their communities, seeing an increase in the frequency of disasters, or with limited capacity need additional federal support to rapidly respond to an incident and manage recovery efforts. Rural areas, in particular, often have very limited administrative capacity, sometimes with only one person managing a range of public services in a particular community. It is unrealistic to expect localities with such limited bandwidth to take on such critical and time-intensive roles in disaster response and recovery. Additional federal support is needed to enable state, territorial, and local governments to be effective partners. That support could include sending federal personnel to supplement local capacity or investments (e.g. grant funds) in capacity building during the disaster response and recovery phases. The federal government should also consider ways to minimize the administrative burden on state, territorial, and local governments in order to decrease the need for additional support. This could include a checklist of federal disaster programs detailing the action items and timelines associated with each program along with the best point of contact for states and territories to work with in each program.
  • Increase Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) funding for states and territories. With the increased frequency, scale, and changes in type and location of disasters, many jurisdictions face concurrent and overlapping emergencies. EMPG funds are the primary funding source for local emergency managers, a crucial resource in this age of frequent and co- occurring natural disasters. Increasing EMPG funding would enhance resilience and support states and territories in augmenting their disaster preparedness posture for the current threat environment. Specifically, an increase in EMPG funding would allow states and territories to increase technical assistance and expedite funding for those seeking reimbursement through FEMA public assistance.
  • Leverage subject matter experts and/or provide a mechanism for states and territories to provide input on damage assessments. Promptly rebuilding roadways and other public access points is critical to community recovery. Greater input from subject matter experts (at the U.S. Department of Transportation, for example) or from state and territorial officials with similar expertise would help ensure timely, high quality damage assessments that properly compensate communities for some of their most significant losses.

Thank you for your interest in these recommendations and your leadership and partnership on the Council of Governors. We look forward to working with you to ensure that the federal government’s disaster response and recovery framework meets the needs of our communities.


Governor Eric Holcomb
State of Indiana

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham
State of New Mexico