Officials responsible for doling out billions in Hurricane Katrina relief contracts told lawmakers yesterday that they still don't have answers to central questions about why certain recovery efforts have stalled, whether money is being wasted and what's keeping Gulf Coast firms from getting a bigger share of the work.
In nearly three hours of questioning by the House committee investigating the government's sluggish response to one of the worst natural disasters in the nation's history, top procurement officials with the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers repeatedly said they would need to do more research into exactly how government money is being spent.
Lawmakers made it clear they didn't like that answer.
Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) peppered officials with questions about news reports that the government was paying a contractor more than $2,500 for two hours of work installing a tarp on a damaged roof. "Doesn't it just ring a bell with someone that this is an excessive amount of money?" she asked. "Yeah, it's hard work. But it's not $2,500 hard."
The Army Corps of Engineers' top procurement official, Col. Norbert Doyle, said he would look into the figure and get back to her. That prompted Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) to sputter: "You're in charge, aren't you? And you don't know the answer to a question like that?"
Lawmakers from Mississippi, meanwhile, said thousands of hurricane victims are still living in two-person tents without running water or adequate heat because government contractors haven't finished mobile home parks.
"It's getting cold," said Republican Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr., who asked the government to provide contractors with more incentives to finish their work quickly.
"At today's rate, we're going to have people in Mississippi [waiting for trailers] until January 1st," said Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor.
Patricia English, FEMA's senior procurement executive, said the agency would look into speeding up the process.
With the vast majority of the prime contracts having gone to firms from outside the Gulf Coast, members of Congress also wanted to know whether small, local companies were being deliberately shunned in favor of large, national firms.
Pickering complained that only 5.6 percent of Army Corps contracts for work in Mississippi had gone to local companies and that two Mississippi firms had competed for a $500 million debris-removal contract, but neither won. The work is being done by a Florida firm.
Pickering and others on the committee said local leaders in the gulf have been told by federal officials that unless they use the Corps' contractor, they won't be fully reimbursed and risk a government audit.
Doyle said he had not heard of such warnings, but that they are not in line with Corps policies.
With more than $60 billion already allocated for Katrina relief and more expected, various watchdogs inside and outside the government have been looking hard at how that money is being distributed.
"Obligations are being made at a rate of $275 million a day, in an unstable environment and in an expedited manner," said Richard L. Skinner, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general. "When you mix it all together, it is a potentially perfect recipe for fraud, waste and abuse."
Skinner said his office has begun looking at the price being charged for installing tarps, or "blue roofs." He added, "On the surface it appears to be too much."
The Government Accountability Office is also monitoring reconstruction spending. A $39 million sole-source deal the Corps signed for portable classrooms in Mississippi has already raised eyebrows among GAO investigators. The contract went to an Alaskan Native corporation headquartered in North Carolina, though a Mississippi firm claims it could have done the work for about half of what the government paid.
David E. Cooper, the GAO's director of acquisition and sourcing management, said contracting officers at the Corps may have relied too much on the vendor for information as they crafted the deal's terms. "We have concerns that the government may be paying more than necessary" for the classrooms, Cooper testified.
The committee has been looking into the government's response to Katrina for more than a month, but Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said it is still awaiting critical documents from the Department of Homeland Security, the White House and the Pentagon. "Without the other documents, we don't get a complete picture," Davis said.
The committee has received copies of some of former FEMA director Michael D. Brown's e-mail exchanges with DHS staff members, but not others that he testified he exchanged with the White House in the days before and after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, said Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.). The latest batch of e-mails to be released paints Brown as out of touch, he said.
FEMA began to plan for the evacuation of pets only after newspaper articles appeared noting that some victims were refusing to leave their homes without them, according to e-mails the committee released yesterday. "I want us to start planning for dealing with pets," Brown said in a Sept. 8 e-mail, 10 days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. "If evacuees are refusing to leave because they can't take their pets with them, I understand that."
More than a week earlier, as New Orleans was filling with water, Brown was attending to his own pets. Responding to an e-mail on Aug. 30 asking, "U ok?," Brown said: "I'm not answering that question, but do have a question. Do you know of anyone who dog-sits?"