Lack of Contracts Hampered FEMA

By Renae Merle and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 10, 2005

Among the many failures in government planning revealed by Hurricane Katrina, one was particularly striking: No one, it seems, figured out ahead of time who was going to pick up the dead.

When the storm swept through the Gulf of Mexico six weeks ago and left hundreds of bodies to decompose in homes and streets, Louisiana officials looked to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help removing them. But since cities and localities had historically recovered bodies from mass casualties, FEMA says, it had made no arrangements.

So a week after the monster storm struck, FEMA hired Kenyon International Emergency Services Inc., a Texas company that specializes in mobile morgues. Within a few days, however, Kenyon officials complained that the company still had no contract and that it was caught in a "bureaucratic quagmire," asked to do far more than was called for in the original agreement.

The company spurned FEMA and went to work for the state of Louisiana.

The lack of a contract to manage body collection, and the difficulties with Kenyon, fit a pattern of breakdowns in FEMA's relationship with the private sector, a relationship that has become crucial to the agency's workings but that contributed to its flawed response to Katrina. With relatively few resources of its own, FEMA relies on the private sector to provide the manpower and logistical help necessary to deal with a major emergency, but there were major gaps in the arrangements it had made. Many of the contracts it did have were poorly executed because of miscommunication and lack of planning.

To fill the gaps, the agency was forced to acquire much of what it needed on the fly, signing deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars with little or no competition when its bargaining position could not have been worse.

Now under heavy pressure from Congress, FEMA has taken the unusual step of putting out for competition four huge contracts for housing assistance that it originally awarded as no-bid deals.

"There were contracts in place. But obviously they were not adequate," said Richard L. Skinner, the Homeland Security Department inspector general. "I don't think the contracts in place ever contemplated anything this devastating. . . . They weren't prepared upfront to obtain the products and services they would need."

Skinner said his office will take a hard look at whether the contracts signed in the frenzied aftermath of Katrina's landfall cost the government more than they should have. "We're hearing rumors that, yes, we're being gouged. That's exactly what we're looking at," he said.

Joshua I. Schwartz, co-director of the government procurement law program at George Washington University, said that when the government tries to buy what it needs after a major emergency, there is no chance to have an open competition and it loses its ability to get the best possible price. "You don't want to be doing this after a twelve-alarm emergency so your contractors don't have you over a barrel," he said.

Instead, Schwartz said, FEMA should have lined up contracts in advance from which it could draw as need arose. FEMA also could have made better use of government-wide contracts, negotiated by the General Services Administration and others, for which the prices are already set, he said.

In the case of body retrieval, a major problem was the lack of agreement over whose responsibility it was in the first place. FEMA says it has never undertaken such a job. "Body retrieval is a state responsibility," said Nicol Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman, though the agency eventually picks up the cost.

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