When Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico in dire straights, the relied on FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to help feed the hungry people devastated by the storm’s destruction. The agency needed to provide 30 million meals as part of the disaster relief.
To perform this monstrous task, FEMA awarded an Atlanta entrepreneur $156 million dollars to provide the much needed relief. Tiffany Brown had no experience in large-scale relief, and in fact, had at least 5 previous government contracts canceled. Ms. Brown was the only employee of her company.
Ms. Brown hired and Atlanta wedding catering company, with a staff of only 11, to freeze-dry soups, and she found a Texas nonprofit organization that had experience in relief efforts during Hurricane Harvey to ship the food aid to Puerto Rico. When the first batch of meals were due, Ms. Brown’s company only managed to deliver 50,000 of the needed 18.5 million, but the food had been packages separately from the pouches that were needed to heat the meals.
Ms. Brown was told in an email from the contracting officer handling her agreement to “not ship another meal. Your contract is terminated. This is a logistical nightmare.”
Four months after the damage of Hurricane Maria, the mismanagement of the contracts awarded in the days immediately after the storm are coming to light. Examples like Ms. Brown’s contract are worrying lawmakers, and raising questions about whether FEMA is adequately prepared to respond appropriately when disaster strikes. In fact, the House Oversight Committee has subpoenaed FEMA documents relating to the Brown agreement. The committee is concerned that the emergency agency isn’t actually lining up contractors prior to an emergency and is left scrambling to find appropriate contracts after disaster strikes.
After Hurricane Katrina, a bipartisan congressional investigation already found that the failure to secure proper contracts in advance of a disaster leads to chaos, waste, and fraud. Representatives from Maryland and the Virgin Islands discussed the incident, “It appears that the Trump Administration’s response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico in 2017 suffered from the same flaws as the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.”
The missing meals weren’t the only contract during Maria relief where FEMA dropped the ball. They also awarded a $30 million contract for tarps, but those tarps were, of course, never delivered. Even Ms. Brown herself thinks the agency is not very astute at finding the appropriate vendor for the job, “They probably should have gone with someone else, but I’m assuming they did not because this was the third hurricane. They were trying to fill the orders the best they could.” However, if the agency was actually prepared for emergency relief, as their name implies they should be, one would think that they would have had plenty of contracts on hand, before any of the storms hit.
Read more about the shafting of Puerto Rica, “FEMA Contract Called for 30 Million Meals for Puerto Ricans. 50,000 Were Delivered.” written by Patricia Mazzei and Agustin Armendariz for New York Times and published on February 06, 2018.