DisasterAssistance.gov: One stop for emergency relief

FEMA and a 17-agency partnership create a Web portal for disaster victims seeking help

2010 GCN AwardsTrying to obtain emergency relief from multiple federal agencies after a disaster can be daunting.

Finding the paperwork necessary to apply for relief and identifying the programs for which they qualify can be frustrating for disaster survivors, especially as they try to pull their lives back together.

After the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, government officials realized agencies needed a better way to help people. In August 2006, the Bush administration issued Executive Order 13411, “Improving Assistance for Disaster Victims,” which established an interagency task force to devise a plan to improve the delivery of federal aid.

With the Homeland Security Department’s Federal Emergency Management Agency at the helm, a partnership of 17 federal agencies, now known as the Disaster Assistance Improvement Program (DAIP), launched a one-stop clearinghouse for disaster survivors to get disaster assistance information and apply for federally sponsored assistance.

FEMA Disaster Assistance Improvement Program

From left, Scott Bowman, Jean Etzel, William Prusch,Kathy Fields and Curtis Turner.

One objective of the executive order was to develop a single application and review process for those seeking assistance. Another goal was to minimize waste, fraud and abuse, said William Prusch, program manager at FEMA’s Recovery Directorate, which oversees the DAIP Project Management Office.

DAIP established DisasterAssistance.gov, a website that provides a single point of entry for disaster survivors to access and apply for federally funded assistance and access other critical disaster information from federal, state, tribal and local sources.

The executive order gave FEMA and its partners a tight deadline of 15 months to launch the site, Prusch said.

“I think this project is a strong testimony of the cooperation and commitment of the 17-agency partnership and the DHS and FEMA leadership in support of this presidential initiative,” Prusch said.

DisasterAssistance.gov uses tools and techniques from the Labor Department's Benefits.gov website and FEMA’s Disaster Assistance Care Center and enhances FEMA’s National Emergency Management Information System.

Because DisasterAssistance.gov had a short deadline, the DAIP team had to take extraordinary measures to develop the portal.

DAIP was able to take advantage of Benefit.gov’s content management system. “We used their rules engine and content management system to support the front end of our process, which was a prescreening questionnaire,” Prusch said.

Disaster survivors can log in to a central location, powered by Benefits.gov technology, and answer 10 questions about their situation. They don’t provide any personal information. The victims can then choose to apply for selected assistance programs, seek more information or move to other agency sites if DisasterAssistance.gov does not contain the information they want, Prusch said. Search capabilities let them see all available assistance on a site. Information about how to prepare for a disaster is also available.

DisasterAssistance.gov also draws information from a State Department program that provides assistance to U.S. residents affected by disasters abroad.

The DAIP team also implemented FEMA’s first service-oriented architecture to provide interconnections with other federal agencies in addition to disaster assistance programs at the state and local levels and from nonprofit organizations.

The DAIP team bought Oracle’s Service Oriented Architecture Suite. It took about nine months to build, test and implement a SOA capability. At launch, the team deployed bidirectional SOA interfaces with the Labor Department, Small Business Administration and Social Security Administration.

Since the launch of DisasterAssistance.gov, DAIP has been working on interfaces with other federal and state disaster programs that include those from the Agriculture Department; Florida’s Food Stamp Program specifically for disaster survivors; the U.S. Postal Service, which is interested in change-of-address information, and FEMA’s National Emergency Family Registry and Locator Services.

DAIP is also developing interfaces with the Health and Human Services Department's Disaster Health and Assistance Program and Louisiana’s Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. DAIP has launched a one-way interface with the Education Department to provide access to student loan information.

SOA is a cutting-edge network architecture that is becoming a model for FEMA, Prusch said. SOA provides a potential platform for many different kinds of interfaces, shared services and data exchanges with partners in the future, from low-tech, one-way delivery, such as e-mail or faxes, to high-tech, fully automated data transfers, he said.

The SOA suite eliminates lots of custom code, which lowers costs and speeds development, Prusch said, noting that the Oracle software came with 300 adapters for the communication and exchange of information with databases.

During 2009, the portal received an inaugural National Information Exchange Model award and was a finalist for the American Council for Technology's Intergovernmental Solutions award, which recognizes federal, state and nonprofit agencies that have demonstrated collaboration and innovative use of technology to improve service delivery.

DisasterAssistance.gov became a vital part of federal disaster response this year during the floods in Nashville, Tenn., and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ira Grossman, chief enterprise architect at FEMA , told DisasterAssistance.gov success stories to a gathering of government and industry executives at the Government Technology Research Alliance (GTRA) meeting in June.

Enterprise architecture and the National Information Exchange Model are the underlying technology concepts that foster information sharing on the site, he said.

Grossman pointed to recent success stories associated with the website, such as the rapid development of a second page for people who have been affected by the gulf oil spill to file claims with BP, which operated the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded April 20.

Another success story shared at the conference came from Bob Daniels, CTO of Troux Technologies, whose house suffered water damage during extreme flash flooding in Nashville in early May.

Daniels first did not file a claim after pumping four feet of water out of his cellar but later found out that his house suffered more damage than he had realized. On June 4, he filed a claim via DisasterAssistance.gov. He submitted his name and address and the type of disaster.

“Before I know it, it figured the date when the event occurred, what kind of problem I had and what I would need,” Daniels said. The next day, he got a call from a FEMA representative who wanted to come to check his house in two days.

There was one problem, though. Daniels was at the GTRA conference.

He was able to reschedule. “I’m whining,” he said, noting that he knows of other folks who lost everything except for their birth certificate, wedding pictures or dog.

Surveys conducted by the FEMA Customer Satisfaction Analysis Section in May suggest that customers’ satisfaction with DisasterAssistance.gov is high. Ninety-one percent of the respondents rated their Internet registration process as good or excellent. Ninety-four percent said they would use the site again for future assistance. Ninety-eight percent said they would recommend the site to a friend or family member.

DAIP continues to use innovative technology to enhance the public’s experience with the site. For example, mobile smart-phone users can now access the portal.

The team continues to enhance the portal, establishing additional controls for detection of waste, fraud and abuse during emergencies. Other work includes improving the capacity to handle surges in traffic to the site; customizing the site to provide more disaster-specific information to the public, with a focus on survival basics; and further integrating with the systems of leading nonprofit disaster relief organizations.

See more of the 2010 GCN Awards winners.


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