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Tons of Food Spoiled As FEMA Ran Out Of Storage Space

"I am worried that just as you were getting your house in order, things may begin to unravel again," he said recently. "Without a viable logistics system, FEMA is crippled and it will leave untold numbers of victims in the lurch during the next significant disaster."

Johnson, who joined FEMA last April, said the agency is cleaning house. "FEMA is making significant changes in the culture, management and organization of our logistics structure, and part of that is to instill . . . visibility and accountability," he said.

However, FEMA's promised "Total Asset Visibility" tracking system is lagging. While homeland security officials last spring described plans to track all vehicles that go through FEMA warehouses by June 2006, completion of the first phase has been extended at least twice, to October 2009, and the system is operating in just two of 10 regions of the country.

The contract to develop that system was awarded, without competitive bidding, to a small suburban Atlanta company in 2005, before Katrina hit. The company, Stratix Corp., has received more than $43 million of $71 million spent so far on the project.

In May 2006, it hired Kenneth O. Burris Jr., FEMA's chief operating officer and a proponent of the project, as a top executive. FEMA's ethics office investigated Burris's dealings with Stratix and determined that his actions were "aboveboard," said spokesman Aaron Walker.

Burris did not return a telephone message, but Stratix spokesman Paul Shiman said federal ethics rules prohibit Burris from working with FEMA for one year.

After Katrina, FEMA could not meet Mississippi's requests for food and water for 10 days. The agency also ordered 182 million pounds of ice delivered to the Gulf but ended up using less than half. Trucks roamed the country for two weeks, winding up in Maine, Iowa and, in one case, at an Arizona zoo, where after a 22-state journey the ice was used by polar bears and other animals, Senate investigators said.

In light of such incidents, FEMA resorted to "brute force" in 2006, Johnson said, flooding Gulf states with massive stocks of food, water and ice. At the time, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA Director R. David Paulison boasted of storing enough to feed 1 million people for a week.

But the hurricane season turned out to be unexpectedly mild, and FEMA's overloaded depots lacked room for the supplies, officials sad. Many trailers sat in parking lots throughout the summer.

Most of the supplies that expired were in Selma, Ala., where FEMA workers tracked the temperatures inside trailers as they topped 120 degrees, Johnson said. Plastic water bottles burst and food degraded in the heat. Some of the food rotted, and the rest no longer met Army food-storage guidelines, Johnson said.

Thousands of tons were still edible, however, and were donated to America's Second Harvest, which supplies food banks.

Meals Ready to Eat are designed to have a storage life of three years at 80 degrees, to withstand being dropped from aircraft and to survive 30 minutes when crushed by a 200-pound load, according to the U.S. Army center in Natick, Mass., that develops troops' food.

But when MREs are stored at 120 degrees, their shelf life dwindles to one month, said James Lecollier, the unofficial MRE guru at the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency. "In some cases, we stored those containers full of MREs in a condition where it was not temperature controlled," Johnson said. "We've lost a volume of [them]."

In total, FEMA discarded 279 truckloads of food worth about $43 million, leaving it with 586 truckloads stored for the coming hurricane season, it said. The agency will eliminate all 2,055 loads of ice pending further review, and it has cut its overall inventory of food, water and ice.

This year, FEMA will expand its reliance on the military, which has supplies in huge cold-storage facilities in Albany, Ga., and Kansas City, Mo. By doing so, it expects to cut by half the amount of food and by three-fourths the amount of water it will position in Gulf Coast states. In the event of a hurricane or other disaster, the agency said, it is better able than in 2005 to move supplies quickly to the Gulf in coordination with the military and private contractors.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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