FEMA Accounts Reveal Last-Minute Scramble

Documents obtained by NPR show that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had to scramble to purchase the most basic emergency supplies after Hurricane Katrina hit, often making purchases outside the normal bidding process. The agency has spent nearly $2 billion so far on relief efforts.

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So far, FEMA has spent nearly $2 billion on Hurricane Katrina. In the days and weeks after the storm, government officials were scrambling to purchase basic emergency supplies such as cots and blankets. According to documents obtained by NPR, they were paying full price for such things as inflatable rescue boats, and most of the purchases were made outside the normal bidding process. NPR's Laura Sullivan has more.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

One of the itemized accounts of what's been bought comes from an obscure form titled Acquisition Analysis Report for Contract Actions(ph). The other less detailed accounting comes from the Department of Homeland Security, where FEMA resides. Here's the shopping list: $7.91 for a socket wrench, $216 for detergent, $153,000 for Jockey underwear, $1.2 million for tents bought from Western Shelter Systems of Eugene, Oregon. Paul Bennett is the company's president.

Mr. PAUL BENNETT (Western Shelter Systems): We provided shelter systems. We provided a lot of showering systems, which was a real problem down there. Air conditioning--just about our full product line was being shipped.

SULLIVAN: Bennett didn't have to bid against any other tent companies for the deal. FEMA just called a week after the hurricane and said it needed a lot of tents and it needed them fast. Bennett told his employees to drop everything else and make tents. For a small company, the contract was a big deal.

Mr. BENNETT: Well, the $1.2 million, we would consider that to be a fairly large contract, yes.

SULLIVAN: Western Shelter Systems was just one of hundreds of companies that found themselves the sudden beneficiaries of no-bid contracts this month, contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. FEMA's purchasing guidelines say the agency is supposed to line up contracts in advance so the details are already worked out when they need to place an order. In this case, though, according to documents, FEMA was lining up most of its emergency supplies after the storm. FEMA's purchasing department became so overwhelmed, they then asked another federal agency, the General Services Administration, for help. Among the essential items needed: $2 million worth of ready-to-eat meals, $92,000 worth of Gerber baby food, half a million dollars worth of medical supplies and hundreds of other items, all purchased without bidding. Former FEMA Director Michael Brown told Congress this week he couldn't explain why they had to spend $200,000 at the last minute for body bags at the full price.

Mr. MICHAEL BROWN (Former FEMA Director): I don't know, and that was a mistake, one that we should look at and make sure we don't do in the future. We should've had the contract in place before Katrina made landfall.

SULLIVAN: The documents show FEMA was scrambling for ice, long an agency mainstay. Ice is used to keep medicine fresh and bodies from decomposing. But Michael Brown said he doesn't think providing ice is essential.

Mr. BROWN: I don't think that's a federal government responsibility to provide ice to keep my hamburger meat in my freezer or refrigerator fresh.

SULLIVAN: According to an audit a year ago, FEMA's procurement office was a mess. Only one of 45 employees could document they had fulfilled the requirements to be a government purchaser. The report also found that the department was using a 12-year-old manual that relied on a law that was repealed in 1996. FEMA couldn't have anticipated all the expenses, but Clark Kent Ervin, the former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, says most of the no-bid contracts are inexcusable.

Mr. CLARK KENT ERVIN (Former Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security): There were so many no-bid contracts that money was wasted that could have been better spent, and that adequate supplies were not prepositioned.

SULLIVAN: But Ervin says there's also a bigger problem that needs to be resolved.

Mr. ERVIN: FEMA didn't have the money that it needed in order to be adequately prepared, but FEMA is not unique in that regard. You know, I'm a conservative Republican and so I'm not one who reflexively supports the notion of more government spending. On the other hand, part of the problem is that we have tried to do homeland security on the cheap since day one.

SULLIVAN: Over the coming months, billions more will be spent on contracts for Hurricane Katrina. The Department of Homeland Security says they have 60 auditors on hand reviewing FEMA's purchases. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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