GAO Releases Report on Catastrophic Disaster Response
by Jim Kouri, CPP
Hurricane Katrina was the largest, most destructive natural disaster in our nation's history. The problems experienced in responding to Katrina resulted in a number of investigations--by congressional committees, the White House Homeland Security Council, and others--regarding the preparations for and response to Katrina.
The Government Accounting Office assisted the congression with its investigations and, under the Comptroller General's authority, initiated a number of Katrina-related reviews. In March 2006 testimony, GAO provided its preliminary observations to Congress.
The purpose of their report report to congress was to summarize what went well and why, what did not go well and why, and what changes are needed to improve the nation's readiness to respond to a catastrophic disaster; and to identify selected issues associated with the Gulf Coast's recovery.
Hurricane Katrina was a catastrophic disaster whose scope and destruction severely tested all levels of governments in the affected areas and the nation as a whole. It almost immediately overwhelmed state and local first responders, and the response required outside action and support from many sources.
The heroic efforts by many saved thousands of lives. The federal government, many states, local governments, plus nonprofit and private sector organizations provided substantial personnel and resources to assist in the response, but these proved insufficient to meet the immediate challenges posed by Hurricane Katrina's effects.
The Department of Homeland Security has already revised the National Response Plan designed to further clarify federal roles and responsibilities, but their effect has not yet been tested in an actual disaster.
Developing the capabilities needed for catastrophic disasters should be part of an overall national effort designed to integrate and define what needs to be done, where, by whom, and how well. Ensuring needed capabilities and resources are ready requires effective planning and coordination, plus robust training and exercises in which the capabilities are realistically tested, problems identified, and subsequently addressed in partnership with federal, state, local, and nongovernmental stakeholders.
In addition, integrating an all-hazards risk management framework into decision making is central to assessing catastrophic disaster risks and guiding the development of national capabilities to prevent or mitigate where possible and respond to such risks.
DHS has announced a number of actions to improve readiness and response for catastrophic disasters, but there is little information available on the extent to which these changes are operational. Accountability controls and mechanisms ensure that resources are used appropriately for valid purposes. Following a catastrophic disaster, decision-makers face a tension between the demand for rapid response and recovery assistance --including assistance to victims -- and implementing appropriate controls and accountability mechanisms.
GAO analysts and others found, for example, the processes for confirming disaster victims' eligibility for assistance were insufficient and resulted in millions of dollars in questionable payments to fraudulent claimants. Also, some contracts had insufficient provisions to ensure that prices were fair and reasonable.
DHS has reported that it has taken steps to address some of the concerns, including working to complete more contracts for key services in advance of a disaster and improving its ability to verify individual claimant eligibility for disaster benefits and assistance.
Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. He's former chief at a New York City housing project in Washington Heights nicknamed "Crack City" by reporters covering the drug war in the 1980s. In addition, he served as director of public safety at a New Jersey university and director of security for a number of organizations. He's also served on the National Drug Task Force and trained police and security officers throughout the country. He writes for many police and crime magazines including Chief of Police, Police Times, The Narc Officer, Campus Law Enforcement Journal, and others. He's appeared as on-air commentator for over 100 TV and radio news and talk shows including Oprah, McLaughlin Report, CNN Headline News, MTV, Fox News, etc. His book Assume The Position is available at Amazon.Com, Booksamillion.com, and can be ordered at local bookstores. Kouri holds a bachelor of science in criminal justice and master of arts in public administration and he's a board certified protection professional.