Update: FEMA's IT systems hampered hurricane response in '04, GAO says

The GAO warned of the problems before killer storms struck the Gulf Coast

Inadequate IT systems at the Federal Emergency Management Agency hampered the government's ability to aid the victims of four consecutive hurricanes in 2004, according to a report by Robert Skinner, acting inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (download PDF).

Although the report was made public only last week, FEMA officials were aware of the problems weeks before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.

FEMA is now part of the Emergency Preparedness and Response (EP&R) Directorate in the Department of Homeland Security Department (DHS).

"We're taking a look at a broad range of issues that have come up as a result of the recent hurricanes," said DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen."Obviously, logistics support systems presented some concerns, and that's an area we want to address moving forward. While there are areas that need to be improved, there have been some steps forward since the inspector general's report, as well as mischaracterizations of FEMA IT [and] strategic planning activities.

Testifying before Congress last week, former FEMA chief Michael Brown said state and local authorities were largely responsible for what was seen as an inadequate response by FEMA to Hurricane Katrina last month. The storm killed more than 1,100 people and left New Orleans flooded after plowing into Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29.

Despite Brown's assertions, the Government Accountability Office report noted problems with FEMA's computer systems that directly affected the agency's ability to meet the needs of Katrina's victims.

Among the findings detailed in the report:

  • FEMA personnel said they lacked e-mail server space to accommodate messages and reports sent from state and local emergency centers. If someone did not routinely clear the e-mails from the server, its capacity would fill up—sometimes as often as five to 10 times per day—and the system could crash. At one point, the system was down for two hours at the height of the Florida disasters.
  • Workers could not save or download documents. Rather than expand server capacity to resolve the problem, all workers had to log off of the e-mail server while someone moved e-mails from the queue file by file.
  • Users were unable to perform their jobs in the system and consequently reverted to paper-based methods. When one main server went down, approximately 2,000 IT users were kicked out of the system for as long as 20 to 30 minutes at a time.
  • The mail-processing center at the National Processing Service Center in Hyattsville, Md., was unable to handle the surge in letter production required during the Florida hurricanes. FEMA employees select and print batches of letters to the victims, categorized by different disaster situations. However, this process became difficult during the 2004 hurricanes because of the increased volume of letters that had to be prepared. No provision had been made for surge printing capability.

"Currently, EP&R systems are not integrated and do not effectively support information exchange [with federal, state and local officials] during response and recover operations," the report said. "Also EP&R has not fully updated its enterprise architecture to govern the IT environment."

As a result, during significant disaster response and recovery operations -- such as in 2004, when four hurricanes pummeled Florida -- IT systems can't effectively handle increased workloads, aren't adaptable to change and lack needed real-time reporting capabilities, Skinner said in the report.

Those problems forced FEMA workers to devise their own ad hoc solutions, Skinner said.

"FEMA field personnel developed manual work-arounds, adjusted processes and created alternative IT methods to supplement existing response and recovery systems and operations," he said. "Consequently, this created operational inefficiencies and hindered the delivery of essential disaster response and recovery services."

FEMA's systems don't support effective or efficient coordination of deployment operations because there is no sharing of information, he said.

"EP&R would benefit from strategically managing IT by aligning its IT planning with DHS's direction, as well as ensuring [that] systems users receive more timely training and communication," he said.

Barry West, FEMA's CIO, took issue with the findings of the report. West said he found the report unacceptable because it incorrectly characterized FEMA's strategic planning and IT activities and needed to be revised. He also criticized the overall tone of the report, saying it was negative and didn't acknowledge FEMA's "highly performing, well managed and staffed IT systems supporting FEMA incident response and recovery" -- leading a reader to conclude that the agency is lacking in strategic planning, involvement in DHS initiatives and progress on the enterprise architecture.

West got the report on June 5 and responded to it on Aug. 3, less than four weeks before Katrina struck. Brown, who resigned as FEMA director after criticism about his job performance but who is now serving as a consultant to the agency, had signed off on West's comments.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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