After a deadly and destructive hurricane season stretching from April 19 until Nov. 9, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had to work through one humanitarian crisis after another. Hurricane Maria, the strongest storm of 2017, reaching a consistent category five wind speed of 175 mph, tore through Puerto Rico and is the 10th most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. The storm left the population without a working power grid, many without homes, $90 billion in damages, only 5 percent of the island had cell phone service and less than half had access to water.
After already providing relief in the aftermaths of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, FEMA’s disaster relief capability and the federal government were put to the test. On Oct. 3, FEMA awarded a $156 million contract to Tiffany Brown, sole owner and employee of Tribute Contracting, LLC. This contract required Brown, who had no experience in large scale disaster relief, to provide 30 million meals to Puerto Ricans in need by Oct. 23. To accomplish this, Brown hired a wedding caterer, 11 staff members and a non-profit in Texas that assisted in relief for Houston after Hurricane Harvey.
By the time 18.5 million meals were due as part of her contract, Brown had only delivered 50,000. Upon inspection, FEMA discovered that the food was being packaged separately from necessary heating pouches for “self-heating meals,” delaying the much-needed food from its delivery. Brown was terminated from her contract on Oct. 19 by Carolyn Ward, the FEMA contracting officer responsible for Brown’s contract, who described the situation in Puerto Rico as a “logistical nightmare,” according to the New York Times.
Along with this failure of fulfillment, FEMA had also rewarded a $30 million contract to the Florida-based company Bronze Star, LLC to provide emergency tarps and plastic sheeting for repairs—these supplies were never delivered. Despite FEMA insisting that no Puerto Rican missed a meal as a result of the failed contract with Brown, it appears the truth is quite the opposite. Hurricane Maria shut down ports on the island which provided the population with 85 percent of its food supply, flattened farms and shut down the majority of supermarkets. As such, FEMA became responsible for providing aid for all Puerto Ricans.
Due to these multiple failed contracts, lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee became concerned that FEMA was ill-prepared for disaster relief. This entire debacle mirrored the chaotic recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, in which FEMA had not lined up contracts beforehand to prepare which resulted in short-notice contracts being awarded to unreliable companies. According to CNBC, Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) and Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands) wrote a letter to the House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina), “it is difficult to fathom how FEMA could have believed that this tiny company had the capacity to perform this $156 million contract.” Tiffany Brown and her company had been contracted in the past by the federal government and failed to complete five separate contracts, which were all terminated. In terms of this most recent contract for Puerto Rico, Brown filed an appeal to her terminated contract and is seeking a settlement of at least $70 million dollars. Despite this, according to the New York Times, she stated that “they [FEMA] 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.” Brown was paid $255,000 for those 50,000 delivered meals, according to CNBC.
Is FEMA readily prepared for large-scale disaster relief? West Chester University Senior Political Science major Kevin Carson expressed his concern for this situation, “Congressional funding for FEMA has been inadequate – and it shows. There is a severe lack of attention being paid to this issue from the federal government and there are still many portions of Puerto Rico without power. The fact that this situation has not been resolved is disgusting. Our president has been preaching America first—then why haven’t we helped our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico?”
According to the letter to Gowdy, Brown reportedly believed that “FEMA knew that she could not independently finance the production of this many meals in this short time frame” and that she won the FEMA contract because the bid offered “the cheapest cost.” It is evident that FEMA’s reliance on contracting companies on such short-notice can result in insufficient disaster-relief, the only question is how should they change? We will look to the future to see if the White House and the Department of Homeland Security find alternative ways to provide humanitarian aid to those in need.
Alex Shakhazizian is a fourth-year student majoring in political science with a minor in journalism. ✉ AS823512@wcupa.edu.