Skip to main content

When is a state of emergency over?

By Mike M. Ahlers,CNN
A new report by Department of Homeland Security found 45 disasters remain "open" for failing to reconcile less than $10.
A new report by Department of Homeland Security found 45 disasters remain "open" for failing to reconcile less than $10.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 880 emergencies remain "open" on government books -- 61 of them more than a decade old
  • Some "open" because of failure to account for less than $10, says report
  • Report by Department of Homeland Security recommends reform
  • The report is based on an audit conducted by the accounting firm Foxx & Company
RELATED TOPICS

Washington (CNN) -- Elected officials declare emergencies with relative ease. But declaring them over is another matter.

Some 880 emergencies remain "open" on government books -- 61 of them more than a decade old -- as federal government workers attempt to reconcile money allocated for the disaster with money actually spent.

In some instances, the accounting books remain open because it takes years to rebuild roads, bridges and buildings destroyed by fires, floods and earthquakes.

But in other cases, disasters remain open because of unyielding bureaucratic rules, according to a report by Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner. Auditors found 45 "open" disasters in which the amount of money to be reconciled was less than $10.

"FEMA reconciles all disaster financial activities to the last dollar," it says. "The reconciliation of disaster activities to the exact amount, particularly when the outstanding amounts are relatively small, is not a cost-effective use of FEMA resources," the report said.

Blame for needless delays in closing disasters resides with virtually every level of government and with organizations that receive emergency agency grants, the report says. Regional officials said it was "politically unacceptable" to remove programs established in the wake of disasters. Staff shortages at various levels of government contribute to delays, as do new disasters, which get priority attention.

The report looks at a snapshot in time: September 30, 2008. At that time, there were 880 "open" disasters. Of that number, 744 were open because of obligations that had not yet been paid totaling $16 billion. The remaining 136 disasters were delayed for other reasons, such as appeals or because of other priority work.

The inspector general made seven recommendations to improve FEMA's process for closing disasters, including adopting policies to close disasters that have not been reconciled to the last dollar.

In a letter to the inspector general, a FEMA official endorsed the recommendations and said the agency has established a group to work with regional offices and "give priority to closing out open disasters."

The report is based on an audit conducted by the accounting firm Foxx & Company.