New Watchdog Report Reveals Administration’s Failures After Hurricanes in Puerto Rico

Mar 30, 2020
Press Release
Serious Questions Raised About FEMA’s Ability to Respond to Coronavirus Crisis

Washington, D.C. (Mar. 30, 2020)—Today, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, the Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and  Rep. Harley Rouda, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment for the Committee on Oversight and Reform, issued the following statements after a new report from the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General revealed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) lacked a coherent strategy for using advanced contracts to procure goods and services critical to response and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria:

 

“This independent report confirms what Democratic Members of this Committee warned about more than two years ago—that the Trump Administration’s response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico was a failure that put the health and safety of thousands of Americans at risk,” said Chairwoman Maloney.  “FEMA failed to effectively utilize advance contracts to prepare for those disasters, and now the Trump Administration appears to be repeating these same mistakes in response to the coronavirus crisis, but on a much larger scale.”

“We have been urging FEMA for years to address the significant missteps it made in response to the hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico, but it is clear significant issues still remain,” said Chairman Rouda. “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it—the United States cannot afford for the Administration to replicate its failed response in Puerto Rico with a disease like COVID-19.”

 

The office that is the subject of this new report, FEMA Region II, is the same office now in charge of responding to the coronavirus crisis in New York and New Jersey.

 

According to the new report by the Inspector General:

 

  • “We attributed FEMA’s limited use of advance contracts to its lack of strategy and documented planning process for ensuring maximum use of advance contracts.”
     
  • “FEMA Region II did not issue any new advance contracts prior to Hurricane Maria and did not perform analysis to identify goods or services to obtain through advance contracts.”
     
  • “Specifically, we identified 49 of 241 new contracts issued in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria for the same goods or services covered by existing advance contracts.”
     
  • “Without advance contracts to expedite acquisitions, goods and services for people in need may have been delayed or were more costly to the Government.”
     
  • “FEMA did not maintain contract files in accordance with Federal acquisition regulations and departmental or its own policy. … As a result, FEMA’s ability to hold contractors accountable for deliverables is hindered.”
     
  • “FEMA’s advance contract strategy did not include a documented process for considering the needs of its state and local partners.”

 

Oversight Committee Democrats warned about many of these same problems during their multi-year investigation of the Trump Administration’s inadequate response to Hurricane Maria and its failure to learn the lessons from Hurricane Katrina.

 

In a September 2018 staff report, Democrats detailed how “FEMA failed to deliver tens of millions of emergency meals to the victims of the hurricane in Puerto Rico.”  The report warned that instead of using advance contracts, “one of the primary reasons FEMA failed to deliver these meals is because it inexplicably awarded a contract worth approximately $156 million to deliver 30 million emergency meals to a tiny, one-person company with a history of struggling with much smaller contracts.”  Predictably, by October 2017, “FEMA officials reportedly admitted facing massive food shortages of millions of meals per day,” and the agency was forced to cancel the failed food contract.

 

The 2018 staff report also warned that “FEMA failed to respond to multiple emergency requests from major supermarkets seeking fuel to run generators to help prevent food from spoiling in the days immediately following Hurricane Maria—including tons of fresh produce, dairy, and other perishable products that were desperately needed by these American citizens.”  Documents showed that Walmart officials, congressional offices, and the Puerto Rican government repeatedly conveyed these urgent requests to FEMA, but the agency “failed to supply emergency fuel to save these perishable food supplies.”

 

The staff report found that the Trump Administration failed to heed lessons from the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, explaining, “it appears that the Trump Administration’s response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico suffered from the same flaws as the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.”

 

The 2018 staff report highlighted a key finding from former Committee Chairman Tom Davis following his review of the Hurricane Katrina response a decade earlier:  “The failure at all levels to enter into advance contracts led to chaos and the potential for waste and fraud as acquisitions were made in haste.”

 

Read the new Inspector General report here.

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116th Congress