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FEMA overpayments to Katrina victims: $174 million

St. Petersburg Times Online: News of Florida

The Federal Emergency Management Agency issued overpayments of at least $174 million in its rush to distribute emergency payments to Hurricane Katrina victims, a newspaper reported Thursday.
In three Louisiana parishes FEMA issued checks worth at least $70 million, representing more payments than there were households. In 36 parishes and counties in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, FEMA awarded $102 million to at least 51,000 more applicants than local officials said were displaced by the storm, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

That paper's articles on FEMA are here.


Henry Waxman: are we overpaying Carnival Cruise Lines?

We in California are usually sorry for inflicting Rep. Henry Waxman on the rest of the country, but sometimes he does something OK. Like, trying to find out whether FEMA is overpaying Carnival Cruise Lines for use of three of their ships.
Lawmaker Wants Review of Cruise Ship Deal

In a letter, Rep. Henry Waxman of California asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to release documents indicating how the price was calculated. Waxman said he had Carnival documents from 2002 showing the company normally earns revenue of $150 million over six months...
Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., also have called for investigations into whether the contract price, which amounts to roughly $1,275 a week per passenger if the three ships were at full capacity, is too high.
Carnival officials have defended the deal, saying the company will not make extra profit because the $236 million price covers the revenue it would normally receive for up to 120,000 passengers it could book.
But Waxman, the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, said the 2002 financial data shows that taxpayers are paying Carnival "significantly more under the federal contract than the ships earned on their own."
He noted that the 2002 figure of $150 million in revenue includes sales for liquor and onshore excursions as well as maintenance costs for pools, bars and casinos, which aren't needed for hurricane evacuees and thus shouldn't be charged...


FEMA official blames Brown

FEMA Official Says Boss Ignored Warnings

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials did not respond to repeated warnings about deteriorating conditions in New Orleans and the dire need for help as Hurricane Katrina struck, the first FEMA official to arrive in the city conceded Thursday.
Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA regional director, told a Senate panel investigating the government's response to the disaster that he gave regular updates to people in contact with then-FEMA Director Michael Brown as early as Aug. 28, one day before Katrina made landfall.
In most cases, he was met with silence or a polite thank you from Brown, who said he would check with the White House. ``I think there was a systematic failure at all levels of government to understand the magnitude of the situation,'' Bahamonde said.
The testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee contradicted Brown, who has said he wasn't fully aware of the dire conditions until days later and that local officials were most responsible for the sluggish response.
...In e-mails to various FEMA officials, including one to Brown, Bahamonde described a chaotic situation at the Superdome, where many of the evacuees were sheltered. Bahamonde e-mailed FEMA officials and noted also that local officials were asking for toilet paper, a sign that supplies were lacking at the shelter.
"Issues developing at the Superdome. The medical staff at the dome says they will run out of oxygen in about two hours and are looking for alternative oxygen,'' Bahamonde wrote in an e-mail to David Passey, an assistant to Brown, in late afternoon on Aug. 28.
Less than an hour later, Bahamonde wrote: ``Everyone is soaked. This is going to get ugly real fast.''
Bahamonde said he was stunned that FEMA officials responded by sending truckloads of evacuees to the Superdome on that day even though they knew supplies were in short supply.
"I thought it amazing,'' he said. "I believed at the time and still do today, that I was confirming the worst-case scenario that everyone had always talked about regarding New Orleans.''

The WaPo's version of this AP story is in "FEMA Official Says Boss Ignored Warnings". It starts:

In the midst of the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official in New Orleans sent a dire e-mail to Director Michael Brown saying victims had no food and were dying. No response came from Brown.
Instead, less than three hours later, an aide to Brown sent an e-mail saying her boss wanted to go on a television program that night _ after needing at least an hour to eat dinner at a Baton Rouge, La., restaurant.

Chertoff defends actions

From Homeland security secretary defends actions:

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff defended his actions before and after Hurricane Katrina, telling lawmakers Wednesday he relied on Federal Emergency Management Agency experts with decades of experience in hurricane response.
"I'm not a hurricane expert," Chertoff said several times in responding to criticisms from members of a special House panel set up to investigate the dismal federal response to Katrina, which killed more than 1,200 people, flooded New Orleans and forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands.
...Lawmakers grilled Chertoff about why he stayed home Saturday before Katrina made landfall on Monday, why he made a previously scheduled trip to Atlanta on Tuesday, and why he didn't act more decisively to speed up the federal response.
Chertoff said he relied on former FEMA Director Michael Brown as the "battlefield commander" and focused his efforts on making sure FEMA had all the resources it needed. He said he stayed in telephone contact with the office while at home and during the trip to Atlanta.
"I don't think there was a lack of a sense of urgency," he said.
...[Former FEMA head Michael] Brown blamed state and local officials in Louisiana for the slow response to Katrina when he testified before the committee last month. Chertoff disagreed.
"From my own experience, I don't endorse those views," he said.
After the levees broke in New Orleans, Chertoff said he became increasingly frustrated with the federal response and decided by the end of the first week to replace Brown with Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen. A week later, he relieved Brown of his duties and ordered him back to Washington.
...The investigation is being conducted by a special committee appointed by House GOP leaders. Democratic leaders, insisting on an independent investigation, have refused to cooperate in what they contend is a too-soft probe of the Bush administration by GOP lawmakers.
Several Democratic congressmen from the affected areas have attended the hearings and questioned witnesses. They were joined Wednesday by Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Georgia, who blasted what she called a lack of leadership in the Bush administration's response to Katrina.
Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, objected when McKinney asked Chertoff why he should not be charged with negligent homicide because of the federal response.
When questions "are over the top and not constructive, I don't believe the secretary should waste his time by answering," Bonilla said.
Chertoff did answer, however, declaring the President Bush "was deeply and personally engaged in the process from before the hurricane; I was deeply and personally involved in the process from before the hurricane."
Earlier, Chertoff told the committee that FEMA was overwhelmed by Katrina and must be retooled to improve preparation and response to natural disasters.
"There are many things that did not work well with the response," Chertoff said, adding later, "We are not where we need to be as a nation in the area of preparedness."
Chertoff said Katrina demonstrated that FEMA's system for moving supplies into disaster areas is not adequate and that communications systems must be made to work even in the worst disasters. He said the agency also must learn how to identify issues and target resources when state and local officials are overwhelmed by a storm.

Only 200,000 in hotels, not 600,000 like FEMA said

Number Overstated for Storm Evacuees in Hotels

The Red Cross and federal government said Tuesday that they had been significantly overreporting the number of Hurricane Katrina evacuees in hotels. Instead of 600,000 people, 200,000 remain in hotels, the charity said.
Although the lower number means that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and cities receiving evacuees will find new housing for far fewer people, the count shows the lack of knowledge that FEMA has about the relocations and its limited oversight over the money it is committed to spend on such housing.
"FEMA still does not know any more about what it was doing last week than it was a month ago," Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said. "It is still, as far as I am concerned, an incompetent agency."
FEMA had reported to Congress that as of last Wednesday, it was housing 576,135 people in 206,564 hotels rooms, with the largest numbers, in order, in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida. The New York Times and other news organizations reported the Red Cross and FEMA estimates, which meant that the government would have been spending $11 million a night for hotels and motels. Now, relief officials say, 70,000 rooms are occupied, costing $4 million a night.
A spokeswoman for the emergency agency, Frances Marine, said it had relied on the Red Cross for the estimates that it provided to Congress as its own. "It is unfortunate," Ms. Marine said...

FEMA internal memos not as damning as you might think

From Memo: FEMA had problems before Katrina

FEMA struggled to locate food, ice, water and even body bags in the days following Hurricane Katrina, a frantic effort punctuated by bureaucratic chaos, infighting and concerns about media coverage, according to memos obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
"Biggest issue: resources are far exceeded by requirements," wrote William Carwile, the top Federal Emergency Management Agency official in Mississippi in a Sept. 3 e-mail to a state official. "Getting less than 25 percent of what we have been requesting from HQ daily."
The memos underscore how FEMA was overwhelmed and underprepared for Katrina. The e-mails - 25 pages in all - represent a partial response to a request for documents by a House panel investigating the government's slow response to the storm...

Excerpts of other emails follows. There don't appear to be any big smoking guns in them, despite the worrisome second paragraph above. I'll update this if I find the full text of the memos, or leave a link in the comments.
It does, however, have this:

As Katrina approached, FEMA officials bristled at pressure from the White House to activate a group of strategy advisers as outlined in the National Response Plan that was issued by Homeland Security in January.
"This is the job of long-term recovery ... in the NRP and FEMA is the lead," wrote FEMA deputy chief of staff Brooks Altshuler in an Aug. 28 e-mail to Rhode, which was forwarded to Brown.

Blanco to FEMA: use local contractors

LA Governor Kathleen Blanco has sent a letter to acting FEMA director David Paulison urging that FEMA uses LA or Gulf Coast businesses to do their general contracting. From the PDF file:

"...we have firms in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast which are capable of being prime contractors. These firms will have better local contacts to subcontractors and will be more able to link the resources made possible by reconstruction efforts into the affected areas..."

The article also says that:

President Bush emphasized the use of local industry to help rebuild the economy and [Blanco] also cited the Stafford Act as authority.

The feds pay retail! Millions of dollars involved

What fool pays retail? The feds! According to the NYT's "Federal Agencies Often Paid Retail for Hurricane Aid".
While it concentrates on what they bought, it also contains the interesting info that just 20 DHS employees had those infamous charge cards with $250,000 limits:

Mr. Orluskie, of the Homeland Security Department, said that far from giving out purchase cards frivolously, FEMA limited them to just 20 employees, who have so far charged about $12 million in hurricane-related expenses.

As for the rest:

...there is a vast quantity of smaller purchases, made by an army of workers dispatched to the storm region, many carrying government credit cards. It was shopping on an epic scale - $66,632.37 for a single sale at a Wal-Mart store in La Place, La.; $129,568.40 spent in 195 trips to Home Depot outlets by workers of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; 3,000 sleeping bags bought from two sporting goods outlets for $60,639.61...

I paid around $200 for a sleeping bag, so that doesn't sound like such a bad price as long as they weren't just blankets with zippers or something.

Auditors will take years to assess the propriety of the spending, and its scale is so great that many purchases are unlikely ever to get close scrutiny. A review of financial records provided by FEMA and four other agencies, however, shows that the government often paid retail prices or more even for items bought in large quantities. At least one transaction appears to have been split up to avoid a ceiling of $250,000 on credit card purchases, a limit already increased a hundredfold for Hurricane Katrina from the usual $2,500.
On their face, the records, detailing $19 million worth of federal government purchase-card spending, reveal no pattern of outlandish spending. But there is often no way to tell whether purchases were necessary or whether the items were ever used. The bulging shopping baskets reflect the rush to meet the needs of desperate victims and the fact that other people's money is easy to spend...


Some eye-catching line items turn out to be understandable when details are known. The flip-flops and underwear were for evacuees, many of whom fled without extra clothing and used public showers for weeks, FEMA says, and Jockey International says it provided the underwear at or under the company's cost. It seems odd that Steve's Christmas Trees, a California company, got nearly $2 million from FEMA for "hurricane relief" - but a call reveals that the company is a well-established supplier of water trucks, portable showers and portable laundry units.

$11 million per day on hotels?

Holy moly! I've already discussed how little I spent on motels driving across the U.S. Perhaps they should get someone as cheap as I:

The number of people in hotels has grown by 60 percent in the past two weeks as some shelters closed, reaching nearly 600,000 as of Tuesday. Even so, relief officials say they cannot meet the deadline, as more than 22,000 people were still in shelters in 14 states on Wednesday.
The reliance on hotels has been necessary, housing advocates say, because the Federal Emergency and Management Agency has had problems installing mobile homes and travel trailers for evacuees and has been slow to place victims in apartments that real estate executives say are available throughout the southeast.
Hotel costs are expected to grow to as much as $425 million by Oct. 24, a large expense never anticipated by the FEMA, which is footing the bill. While the agency cannot say how that number will affect overall spending for storm relief, critics point out that hotel rooms, at an average cost of $59 a night, are significantly more expensive than apartments and are not suitable for months-long stays...

Vitter, others oppose "FEMA Cities"

From this:

Vitter said so-called "FEMA cities" of travel trailers are a "bad idea," though he said in some cases they might be necessary.
FEMA needs to set up any large travel-trailer parks as near as possible to devastated areas, so that people can return close enough to their homes to get back to work -- and so that businesses have an available work force.
State Sen. Craig Romero, R-New Iberia, said many people in rural Vermilion and Iberia parishes would like the opportunity to have a FEMA trailer put on their home site.
While thousands of homes are unlivable, most areas have the basic infrastructure available to make it possible for someone to live temporarily on their own property and near work -- especially with the high cost of gasoline, Romero said.
"Why do they have to be on sites?" Romero said.
Vitter said FEMA should be approving trailers for people at their own property when possible. Businesses should also be allowed to set up on-site housing for employees when needed, Vitter said.
Will Langlinais, an Iberia Parish official, said FEMA has yet to send actual decision-makers to meet with local officials, making it impossible to get answers.
Langlinais credited local businesses, volunteers and officials for a quick response in his parish.
"The Red Cross, I wouldn't give them a nickel," Langlinais said.
Red Cross and FEMA response has been inefficient, which is "inexcusable," Langlinais said.
"There's got to be a better way," he said.
Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel said officials here are worried that economic incentives will only be offered in the southeast corner of the state. Parishes such as Lafayette, even through spared most storm damage, anchor the area's economy and shouldn't be forgotten, Durel said.
Vitter said the more areas he tries to include in spending bills to Congress, the more difficult it will be to get the spending approved.
But Acadiana "at a minimum," should still be included with southwest and southeast Louisiana, Vitter said.
Vitter said the hurricane presents an opportunity to "push" some long-standing infrastructure needs such as completing Interstate 49 from Lafayette to New Orleans.
After Vitter left to make a meeting in Baton Rouge, Durel told the remainder of the officials that Acadiana needs to lobby for funds in Congress as a united body.


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