The Federal Emergency Management Agency is the entity tasked with coordinating the U.S. Federal Government’s role in preventing and responding to disasters. One of its major duties is to obligate federal recovery funds to individuals and communities through the Individual Assistance and Public Assistance grant programs. The process for awarding these grants has historically been periodically reviewed and revised, and most recently major changes were made in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act (SRIA), signed on January 29, 2013, sought to use lessons learned from the historic storm to guide statutory changes that would lead to more effective and timely responses to future disasters. The Act’s main goals were to “[reduce] the costs to the Federal Government,” “[increase] flexibility” and “[expedite] the provision” of assistance, and “[provide] financial incentives …for the timely and cost-effective completion of projects,” (SRIA Sec. 1102). SRIA’s provisions are guided by the understanding that FEMA’s ultimate mission is to help victims of disasters, and that consequently any procedural changes should be crafted with the aim of helping applicants.
The purpose of this analysis is to assess whether SRIA successfully improved the process by which FEMA obligates Public Assistance awards. “Improvement” is defined here by three metrics: the average federal share of an award; the average number of project worksheets per applicant per disaster; and the number of days between a disaster declaration and when an award is obligated. An increase in federal share, and a reduction in the number of projects and number of days elapsed would all be evidence that SRIA has had its desired impact on the targeted population.
SRIA’s impact on these three measures was established through multiple linear regressions. SRIA was found to have successfully increased the average federal share awarded to state, local, and tribal governments by 40%, and to have reduced the average number of projects per applicant by 6%. The Act was also, however, associated with an unintended 4.8% increase in the average number of days it took to obligate an award.
Having established that SRIA did not accomplish one of its goals of expediting assistance to victims, I recommend that FEMA conduct an inquiry into where in the obligation process a delay has emerged. Based on SRIA’s specific provisions, I theorize that the increased threshold for small projects and the ability to bundle projects from different categories of work are most likely responsible for slowing down the obligation process, and are prime areas for further analysis using FEMA’s internal data.