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FEMA Contract Called for 30 Million Meals for Puerto Ricans. 50,000 Were Delivered. 

click to enlarge A line stretches outside the unemployment office in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Oct. 23, 2017. For most Puerto Ricans, the catastrophe of Hurricane Maria has been followed by an economic disaster with no end in sight. - ERIKA P. RODRIGUEZ/THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • Erika P. Rodriguez/The New York Times
  • A line stretches outside the unemployment office in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Oct. 23, 2017. For most Puerto Ricans, the catastrophe of Hurricane Maria has been followed by an economic disaster with no end in sight.

By PATRICIA MAZZEI and AGUSTIN ARMENDARIZ
© 2018 New York Times News Service

The mission for the Federal Emergency Management Agency was clear: Hurricane Maria had torn through Puerto Rico, and hungry people needed food. Thirty million meals needed to be delivered as soon as possible.

For this huge task, FEMA tapped Tiffany Brown, an Atlanta entrepreneur with no experience in large-scale disaster relief and at least five canceled government contracts in her past. FEMA awarded her $156 million for the job, and Brown, who is the sole owner and employee of her company, Tribute Contracting LLC, set out to find some help.

Brown, who is adept at navigating the federal contracting system, hired a wedding caterer in Atlanta with a staff of 11 to freeze-dry wild mushrooms and rice, chicken and rice, and vegetable soup. She found a nonprofit in Texas that had shipped food aid overseas and domestically, including to a Houston food bank after Hurricane Harvey.

By the time 18.5 million meals were due, Tribute had delivered only 50,000. And FEMA inspectors discovered a problem: The food had been packaged separately from the pouches used to heat them. FEMA’s solicitation required “self-heating meals.”

“Do not ship another meal. Your contract is terminated,” Carolyn Ward, the FEMA contracting officer who handled Tribute’s agreement, wrote to Brown in an email dated Oct. 19 that Brown provided to The New York Times. “This is a logistical nightmare.”

Four months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, a picture is emerging of the contracts awarded in the earliest days of the crisis. And examples like the Tribute contract are causing lawmakers to raise questions about FEMA’s handling of the disaster and whether the agency was adequately prepared to respond.

On Tuesday, Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, which has been investigating the contract, asked Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the committee chairman, to subpoena FEMA for all documents relating to the agreement. Lawmakers fear the agency is not lining up potential contractors in advance of natural disasters, leading it to scramble to award multimillion-dollar agreements in the middle of a crisis.

“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,” wrote Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., and Stacey E. Plaskett, the nonvoting Democratic delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands.


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