April 13, 2007 in Nation/World

FEMA let millions of meals rot on Gulf Coast

Spencer S. Hsu Washington Post
 

WASHINGTON – 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.

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 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.


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