Audit report of FEMA's Galena disaster recovery response released

Laurel Andrews

After the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived to help rebuild the Interior community of Galena in the wake of devastating flooding along the vast Yukon River last summer, many residents expressed frustration over the agency's disaster-response recovery. Now, an audit report of the recovery efforts outlines the challenges FEMA faced in providing assistance to the remote Alaska town, and provides recommendations for the future.

The copy of the audit report, written by the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General, was obtained Tuesday from Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office.

The Yukon River flooding that began May 27, 2013, left nearly every structure in Galena damaged by the flood waters and massive chunks of ice that smashed into homes. Roughly 500 residents were displaced and seeking shelter in a community accessible only by air or boat.

When FEMA arrived in the community in early July, officials determined that the disaster had left the town's critical infrastructure, power, water, wastewater supply, health care facilities and temporary housing resources all facing minor to severe damage, the report states.

Overall, the audit found that "FEMA generally responded appropriately and proactively ... However, FEMA could improve its response to the unique needs of disaster survivors and communities who have limited cash resources and who reside in remote and inaccessible locations."

The report notes that some Alaska tribal officials were concerned that FEMA's response was slow throughout the summer, and perceived that the slow response had affected the community's stability and emotional health of its residents. The flooding began May 27 and President Obama issued a Major Disaster Declaration -- triggering FEMA to take the lead on coordinating the recovery process -- roughly a month later.

The agency arrived in Galena roughly six weeks after the flooding, at the height of the fleeting Interior Alaska summer, and started assessing damage.

"Thus, we were not surprised when disaster survivors told us they experienced delays," the report states.

Alaskan officials also thought that FEMA's response was "very slow," and FEMA lacked experience dealing with the needs of a rural subsistence economy. Financial assistance for goods such as boats, fishing gear, guns and other items necessary to provide for subsistence needs for the winter was delayed, the report states.

These officials also stated that FEMA stressed the town's barge supply system, and should have used both barge and aircraft to bring in supplies during the initial response. FEMA's supplies took up the space that would otherwise have been used by local businesses.

"In turn, local merchants suffered financially," the report states. "They believe many will go bankrupt."

Alaskan officials also asked that local businesses be utilized to deliver supplies during a disaster recovery.

In relation to "Old Town" in Galena, which sits on the banks of the Yukon River and faced massive damages in the flooding, the report notes the need to "improve the trust of the Alaskan officials," who said Old Town was being treated differently from communities flooded in previous years.

The Tanana Chiefs Council also requested to act as an intermediary between FEMA and local tribes and communities.

"They pointed out that there are a number of cultural issues that cause miscommunication," the report states.

These concerns largely mirror what residents said in mid-September: FEMA's response, although well-intentioned, was slow and out of touch with rural Alaska.

The report also states generally that both construction of permanent housing, and the temporary responder camps where volunteers are stationed, are "vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse."

The report's four recommendations are as follows:

• Work with individual states to "address the unique needs of nontraditional communities."

• Determine whether FEMA can legally require a preference to use local businesses in the evaluation of bids and proposals.

• Issue a policy "to address cultural gaps that exist with Tribes."

• Monitor the housing construction and temporary responder support camp to prevent fraud, waste and abuse.

FEMA concurs with the findings, the report states, and is in the process of writing up policies, reviewing regulations and monitoring the housing construction and responder camp.

Both Murkowski and Sen. Mark Begich provided written responses to the report on Tuesday.

Murkowski wrote in an email: "In the end, the IG believes that while FEMA exercised good faith and best efforts to respond to last summer's tragedy on the Yukon River, it wasn't as ready as it should have been."

"I will continue to pressure FEMA to be accountable for recommendations highlighted in this report and assure that no Alaskan community is asked to overcome federal mismanagement while trying to respond and recover to a disaster," Begich said in a press release.

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