Billions in FEMA grants still unspent

Congressional hearing probes the reasons why state and local governments aren't spending the federal money they've been given.

The Homeland Security Department has funneled $35 billion to states and local governments since 2003 to increase disaster preparedness, but nearly a quarter of the funds remain unspent, according to testimony offered at a congressional hearing on March 20.

The federal funding pays for equipment and training for emergency responders, as well as for planning and for technology and communications upgrades.

As of January 2012, about $8 billion of the $35 billion was still unspent, Elizabeth Harmon, assistant administrator for FEMA’s grant programs directorate, told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Response, Preparedness and Communication.

“It is important to understand that these funds are not idle,” Harmon said. “Work is being done, projects are underway, and capabilities are being built in accordance with the rules and guidelines under which these grants were awarded. That said, the fact remains that for a number of reasons…some grant funds are spent at a slower rate than other grant funds.”

The reasons include state and federal laws and regulations, environmental and historic reviews and state and local procurement and budgeting regulations, she added.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano released a memo on Feb. 13 providing the grantees additional flexibility in spending the remaining funds.

Furthermore, despite the substantial federal support for state preparedness efforts, it is difficult to measure the end results in a quantifiable fashion, officials testified at the hearing.

Harmon, along with Corey Gruber, assistant administrator for FEMA’s national protection directorate, asserted that the grants have helped a majority of states become confident in their disaster planning and reach maturity in many aspects of their preparedness.

“The nation has significantly improved the feasibility and completeness of plans for catastrophic events, due in part to significant State and local investments in planning activities through FEMA grant programs,” Harmon said.

For example, a 2010 study showed that more than 75 percent of States and 80 percent of urban areas were confident that their overall basic emergency operations plans were capable to meet the challenges of a large-scale catastrophic event, she added.

Another area of substantial progress is in the creation of search and rescue teams, which Harmon said were a highly-mature capability. States allocated about $158 million in DHS funding toward that capability between 2006 and 2010. Currently there are about 300 such teams in the country.

“This national expansion of state and /or local urban search and rescue capabilities is a direct result of federal funding and training,” Harmon said. She said the enhanced capability were evident in the aftermath of the April 2011 tornadoes in Alabama, because the state was able to mobilize state and local search and rescue teams rather than call on federal search and rescue support.

But federal auditors at the hearing also noted significant gaps and differences in emergency preparedness levels among states, including outdated strategic plans, inadequate benchmarking of results and delays in performance.

Anne Richards, assistant inspector general for audits at DHS, said Maryland and Minnesota have outdated strategic plans, and Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas have inadequate benchmarks for measuring progress.

Of the 20 states audited to date, 15 have deficiencies in their performance data for the grants, Richards added.

William Jenkins, Jr., director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office, testified that FEMA grant programs have the potential for duplication because they cover similar activities.

To reduce the risk of duplication, FEMA has proposed a consolidation of grant programs in fiscal 2013 and is soliciting comment about that proposal, Jenkins said.