By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007
As many as 6 million prepared meals stockpiled near potential victims of the 2006 hurricane season spoiled in the Gulf Coast heat last summer when the Federal Emergency Management Agency ran short of warehouse and refrigeration space, according to agency officials.
In all, hundreds of truckloads of food worth more than $40 million are being thrown away or scavenged for unspoiled contents to be offered to domestic hunger-relief groups, FEMA officials said. Most of the meals were commercial versions of the military's Meals Ready to Eat, which were ruined despite being engineered to withstand the demands of desert and jungle climates.
Federal disaster management officials decided to position huge amounts of food, water and ice in the southeastern United States last year after they were condemned for failing to quickly deliver critical supplies to victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But they stockpiled the supplies without regard for FEMA's strained storage network, creating a different kind of problem when no major hurricane made landfall.
FEMA's deputy director, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Harvey Johnson, said the agency may have overreacted by storing so many supplies.
"We were so concerned over the failure of Katrina that we . . . probably bought more commodities and had on hand more than what otherwise might be the most prudent business choice," Johnson said. "Given the pressure to perform . . . we didn't want to run any chance of running out."
This year, FEMA will alter its strategy again, shipping fewer supplies to states ahead of time and relying more on military depots for storage. The agency also is pressing forward with the use of new technology, expanding a satellite-based tracking system likened to ones used by major shippers such as FedEx.
News of the latest problems at FEMA follows findings after Katrina that the agency awarded up to $1 billion in improper payments to individuals, spent $900 million on 25,000 trailers that could not be used in flood zones and paid $1.8 billion for hotel rooms and cruise ship cabins that were more expensive than apartments.
The latest difficulties again raised fears that the agency is not moving fast enough to improve how it stocks, tracks and delivers vital goods before another hurricane season begins on June 1.
"I am angry about this senseless waste of taxpayer money and hopeful that the FEMA reorganization that our committee recommended . . . will put an end to screw-ups like this," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate homeland security committee.
Critics say FEMA remains troubled by some of its perennial problems, including high turnover and limited computer systems. The agency has 700 unfilled positions as it races to comply with a reorganization ordered by Congress.
Two FEMA staffers are under internal investigation for allegedly redirecting funds for unauthorized purchases, one agency official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of personnel rules.
Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), the senior Republican on the House panel that funds FEMA, warned that logistics is still the agency's "Achilles' heel."
"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.