Weaknesses in the U.S. disaster system

Posted on 09 October 2008

I’ve been silent on the blog for a few weeks due to paternity leave.

In my absence, events continued to raise questions about the capability of the U.S. disaster response system. There were criticisms of the response to Hurricane Ike, a report from the GAO that the American Red Cross and other leading nonprofits lack the capacity for a major emergency, and the American Red Cross just received $100 million from Congress to replenish funds for disaster relief.

U.S. disaster response is officially a public-private partnership.  It is one of the few instances in which the government officially designates nonprofits to provide support (see the National Response Framework).  The lead governmental agency – FEMA – is given authority to coordinate non-governmental groups.

Some major weaknesses that I perceive:

(1) I do not believe there is clarity between what our government views as its responsibility and what it considers the purview of private donations to nonprofits and faith-based groups. The Stafford Act gives permission for the federal government to fund everything from temporary shelter and cash grants to legal aid, food supplies, and home repair.  But to whom and to what point?   Is the government primarily focused on helping those who have the least resources to support their own recovery, or on everyone – rich or poor – who was affected?  Is it their goal to support survivors until they’re able to return to their homes and start clean-up, or get them back to their level of pre-storm living?

The way the Act is structured, federal funding is negotiated on a case-by-case basis with the affected state after each emergency.  The government clearly sees itself as the primary supporter of the repair of damaged infrastructure.  “People” issues, however, seem to get revisited each time.  The danger is that those decisions can become politicized, especially since the funding is budgeted outside the annual appropriations process.  Mississippi sustained only half as much damage as Louisiana from hurricane Katrina, but Congress mandated they share almost equally the initial $11.6 billion in CDBG funds for “citizen” long-term recovery (after several more months, Louisiana was successful in advocating for more).  Mississippi had a Republican governor and a strong Congressional delegation at the time, with one of its senators (Thad Cochran) chairing the Appropriations Committee.

(2) The nature of fundraising for emergencies is episodic.  Nonprofit responders like the American Red Cross reach out to private donors and the general public after each disaster.  States and the federal government also negotiate federal grants after each emergency.  As emergencies occur more frequently, the ability to rely upon the necessary level of funds through such methods becomes questionable.  It also makes very few resources available for disaster preparedness.

(3) FEMA has limited understanding and ability to coordinate the many local nonprofits that will provide  extremely important services in any major catastrophe (another GAO finding).  As the recent GAO report suggests, and as our Katrina experience demonstrated, a major event will outstrip the capacity of the national nonprofit responders. Local groups will fill the gaps, and since they have local trust and expertise, they can be extremely effective providersWhile FEMA assumed the responsibility to coordinate the efforts of these groups after squabbling about it with the American Red Cross during Katrina, the agency has little capacity to do so successfully.

(4) Local groups have very limited capacity and profile to access contributions by donors from outside the affected area.  The bulk of disaster donations go to large, high-profile national responders like the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross, while in a major catastrophe, local groups are often first on the scene.  During Katrina, for example, many local groups jumped in when they saw the need in their  communities, and they did so without worrying whether they had the funds for it.  But they don’t have the fund raising capacity to provide such services and make themselves known to a completely new public, and they often struggle to find the funds to pay for their courage.

Improvements since Katrina imply that we simply needed to enhance the efficiency and operations of the system already in place.  It’s a centralized approach that is built around a few institutions – FEMA, the American Red Cross, and the national VOAD agencies.  This works well for the size of most emergencies, but continues to crack when tasked at a large scale.  We seem to think that improving the system means building these institutions big enough and efficient enough to respond to anything.

I find this underlying assumption questionable.  I think we need to develop an approach that is decentralized and supple enough to integrate the strengths of hundreds of nonprofits if necessary.  I have some ideas for this that I’ll share in a following post.  I’d also appreciate comments from those of you who are experienced in providing disaster relief internationally.

4 responses to Weaknesses in the U.S. disaster system

  • Alanna says:

    In my experience, there are two kinds of international disaster response:

    Type 1: An international NGO assesses the situation, and then funds local partners. The value added by the INGO is having/choosing local partners and doing and major international goods procurements. Often a response to a natural disaster – something bad happens very suddenly to people in one place. Burma and Lebanon are good examples.

    Type 2: The international NGO sets up its own services such as food distribution for clinics. More often happens when there is a large displacement of population which means there are too many people in the new location for existing organzations to handle, even if they get outside funding.

    In the US, we are far more likely to see type 1 situations.

  • Tony Pipa says:


    Many thanks for your typology. Interestingly, although we experience a “type 1″ situation most often in the U.S., the large national NGOs in the U.S. basically respond like int’l NGOs in your “type 2″ situation – they descend upon the area and set up their own services. Any “local partners” with whom they intersect are most often their own local chapters or affiliates. In my experience, what happens in the “type 2″ situations with significant displacement that we’ve seen in the U.S. – with Katrina being the prime example – is that the situation is too much for the national NGOs to handle, and requires the help of local partners outside their organizational constellation. I feel like we need a system to integrate those many local nonprofits and faith-based groups similar to how an int’l NGO adds value in your first example. Some of the most successful groups to respond to Katrina were int’l NGOs (many of whom were responding to a domestic disaster for the first time).

  • [...] Humanitarian and International Development NGOs The Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University « Weaknesses in the U.S. disaster system [...]

  • L Web says:

    You are doing amazing work I take my hat off to you, I support a charity here in South Africa, trying to do my little bit, they are a non profit and are doing fanatic work, maybe you would like to see what they do,http://www.ekukhanyeni.org/

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