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FEMA Needs to Improve Program Guidance in Puerto Rico Recovery, GAO Says

By on February 6, 2020

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SAN JUAN — After hurricanes Irma and Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) identified about more than 9,000 sites needing funds to repair or rebuild.

The large number of damaged sites and delays in establishing cost estimation guidance specific to Puerto Rico have presented challenges to developing recovery projects, FEMA and Puerto Rico officials told the agency that the U.S. Congress uses to audit the progress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), for its most recent report on the pace of the island’s recovery, titled, “FEMA Actions Needed to Strengthen Project Cost Estimation and Awareness of Program Guidance.”

FEMA and Puerto Rico manage a Public Assistance Program that provides federal funds to state and local governments and some nonprofits to help in recovery efforts.

FEMA issued recovery policy and guidance for Puerto Rico, “but figuring out which guidance to follow and accessing it can be difficult,” the GAO said about the findings in its February report, which suggests FEMA should also improve its cost estimation guidance.

The GAO reviewed FEMA’s cost estimation guidance as well as documentation and data on the Public Assistance program through September 2019. It conducted site visits and interviewed FEMA and Puerto Rico officials regarding the status of recovery efforts.

GAO recommends that the Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response: Federal Emergency Management Agency “(1) revise its cost estimating guidance for Public Assistance to more fully adhere to best practices and, (2) develop a repository of current applicable Public Assistance guidance available to all relevant recovery partners in Puerto Rico,” the GAO said.

The accountability agency now expects FEMA to take the relevant actions in response to the recommendations before it provides “updated information.”

In a summary of its report, the GAO says that as of Sept. 30, 2019, FEMA had obligated nearly $6 billion in Public Assistance grants to Puerto Rico for 1,558 projects since the September 2017 hurricanes. Of this $6 billion, $5.1 billion was obligated for emergency work projects such as debris removal and temporary power restoration. However, FEMA and Puerto Rico faced challenges in developing long-term, permanent work projects under the Public Assistance program.

Both parties must agree to fixed cost estimates for these projects before work can begin. FEMA and Puerto Rico had approved fixed cost estimates for 19 projects as of September last year, out of 9,344 damaged sites in Puerto Rico, such as schools, hospitals, and roads. FEMA and Puerto Rico have recently taken actions, including extending the deadline for fixed cost estimates, to address these challenges. However, it is too soon to assess the impact of these actions, the GAO said.

“FEMA has adapted its Public Assistance cost estimating guidance to accurately reflect costs in Puerto Rico but could improve the guidance to further enhance its reliability,” the GAO wrote, adding it “found that FEMA’s guidance substantially or fully met best practices for nine of 12 steps included in the GAO Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide, such as documenting and defining the purpose of the estimate. However, FEMA could improve the guidance in three areas, including analyzing risks and future uncertainties that could affect these estimates.”

FEMA has developed Public Assistance policies and guidance to respond to the recovery conditions in Puerto Rico. However, Puerto Rico government officials GAO spoke with stated that they were not always certain about how to proceed in accordance with FEMA policy because they did not consistently understand what guidance was in effect.

“Further, FEMA does not maintain a repository of Public Assistance guidance available to all recovery partners that includes current applicable guidance. Without real time access to current applicable guidance, recovery partners risk using guidance that has been revised or replaced,” the GAO said.

Access the GAO’s report here (PDF, 65 PAGES)

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