FEMA Wasting Disaster Recovery Money on Salaries, GAO Says

Use of Disaster Relief Funds on Administration Has More the Doubled Since 1989

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FEMA Responds to Victims of Hurricane Sandy. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Instead of spending it on victims, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is spending an ever-increasing amount of money budgeted for disaster relief on administrative costs, like salaries, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The GAO’s audit report shows that between 2004 and 2013, FEMA used $12.7 billion or 13% of its total $95.2 billion Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) to cover administrative costs involved in responding to presidentially-declared major disasters.

The problem is, found the GAO, that the $12.7 billion in administrative use of DRF funds from 2004 to 2013 is more than twice the amount spent on administrative costs during the ten years from 1989 to 1998.

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According to the GAO, FEMA’s administrative costs can include salaries and benefits, and disaster response-related travel expenses like passport fees, and ATM use fees.

While acknowledging that FEMA has taken steps to control and reduce these costs, such as creating administrative cost targets, the GAO found that FEMA does not require these targets be met, and that if FEMA had met its own targets, “administrative costs could have been reduced by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

A GAO audit done in 2012 found that from fiscal years 2004 through 2011, FEMA spent $80.3 billion, or an average of about $10 billion a year, from the relief fund on administrative costs, and that those costs “frequently exceeded FEMA’s targets.”

For example, of the $41.3 billion in FEMA disaster recovery funds spent on Hurricane Katrina, about 13% or $5.4 billion went to administrative costs.

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In responding to the 650 major disasters declared from 2004 through 2013, FEMA spent $25.9 billion on direct assistance to individual victims, compared to $12.7 billion on administrative costs and $45.3 billion in assistance to public agencies in the impacted areas.

What the GAO Recommended

Free as it is from partisan political pressure, the ever-logical GAO recommended that FEMA develop an integrated plan to better control and reduce its administrative costs for major disasters, and require that its various components meet their own targets for administrative cost reduction.

FEMA agreed with the GAO’s recommendations.