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Fed report draws critics

A government report assessing charitable organizations' response to the terrorist attacks drew diverse opinions.

BY JULIE SABATIER | BALTIMORE | January 14, 2003


"We're definitely going to work with the voluntary organizations to come to the best solution to work together on this."

—Debbie Wing


The General Accounting Office (GAO) recently released a report assessing charitable organizations' response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, drawing diverse opinions from the disaster response community. The report recommends that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) facilitate more coordination among voluntary organizations, but some leaders of those groups aren't sure FEMA is the agency for the job.

The report says, "GAO is recommending that FEMA convene a working group of involved parties to take steps to implement strategies for future disasters."

The report, entitled "More Effective Collaboration Could Enhance Charitable Organizations' Contributions to Disasters," highlights possible benefits of a common application for relief. GAO Senior Analyst Kevin Kumanga said, "This would be a single entrée point into a system of assistance so that people could be assured that they could get access to all the assistance they qualify for and to ensure that there is no duplication or gaps in services."

Debbie Wing, FEMA spokesperson, said, "We're definitely going to work with the voluntary organizations to come to the best solution to work together on this. We're trying to work better together, to streamline the process." This would most likely involve a more efficient system for information sharing among organizations to cut down on the amount of extra paperwork for the organizations as well as for the individuals who require aid.

Some members of the disaster relief/human services community feel that, while coordination is a good idea, FEMA may not be in the best position to initiate it. Johanna Olson, spokesperson for Lutheran Disaster Response said, "FEMA had a great ability to move quickly and access funds from a variety of places and now, being part of the Homeland Security Administration, it may not be as dynamic or nimble in disaster response."

"I think the disaster response community, through NVOAD [National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster] ought to review the GAO report and respond with its assessment of the concerns listed in the report," added Stan Noffsinger, director of emergency response/service ministries at Church of the Brethren. "It would behoove the members of NVOAD to come out with their own findings and statement to present to the world," said Noffsinger.

Many people seem to feel that, while evaluation by an outside organization has its merits, an assessment by a disaster response organization could prove more effective. "This report doesn't have a whole lot of insight into daily disaster response and better case management," Olson said.

According to the report,"35 of the larger charities have reported raising an estimated $2.7 billion since September 11, 2001," Kumanga said, "The size and amount of money is unprecedented in the history of disasters. The amount of charities involved is unprecedented as well."

Many people credit the media for this outpouring of financial support. Stan Hankins, an associate for U.S. disaster response at Presbyterian Disaster Assistance said, "Americans are generous people, but the generosity is largely a function of the number of days the event stays on the headlines. If it's not in front of people's faces on CNN and the local newspaper, people are not going to think there's a need to give."

Because the response to Sept. 11 was so extraordinary, it may prove difficult to apply the lessons learned from this disaster to response in the future. "It's so unique that I'm not sure, barring another terrorist event like that, that [Sept. 11] would stand out as a model," said Hankins.

"The toolbox that the GAO has built up from Sept. 11 is not a diverse toolbox. It doesn't provide new tools for dealing with old problems," said Olson. "We can talk about lessons learned, but Sept. 11 is an anomaly that skews the recommendations to be used for other, garden variety disasters."

Though some of the problems the report touches on are unique to Sept. 11, others are more universal in nature. Hankins said, "The lack of information and the problem with information sharing is common. New York [after Sept. 11] is no exception to that rule. I look at the GAO report as an opportunity to do something about it."

"We're the ones on the ground working," said Noffsinger. "This report should not be the authoritative report that reviews [Sept 11 disaster response]; it should be part of the assessment."


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