FEMA Contract Called for 30 Million Meals for Puerto Ricans. 50,000 Were Delivered.

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Patricia Mazzei and Agustín Armendáriz (The New York Times) report that lawmakers are raising questions about FEMA’s handling of the needs of hurricane-torn Puerto Rico and whether the agency was adequately prepared to respond:

The mission for the Federal Emergency Management Agency was clear: Hurricane Maria had torn through Puerto Rico, and hungry people needed food. Thirty million meals needed to be delivered as soon as possible.

For this huge task, FEMA tapped Tiffany Brown, an Atlanta entrepreneur with no experience in large-scale disaster relief and at least five canceled government contracts in her past. FEMA awarded her $156 million for the job, and Ms. Brown, who is the sole owner and employee of her company, Tribute Contracting LLC, set out to find some help.

Ms. Brown, who is adept at navigating the federal contracting system, hired a wedding caterer in Atlanta with a staff of 11 to freeze-dry wild mushrooms and rice, chicken and rice, and vegetable soup. She found a nonprofit in Texas that had shipped food aid overseas and domestically, including to a Houston food bank after Hurricane Harvey.

By the time 18.5 million meals were due, Tribute had delivered only 50,000. And FEMA inspectors discovered a problem: The food had been packaged separately from the pouches used to heat them. FEMA’s solicitation required “self-heating meals.”

“Do not ship another meal. Your contract is terminated,” Carolyn Ward, the FEMA contracting officer who handled Tribute’s agreement, wrote to Ms. Brown in an email dated Oct. 19 that Ms. Brown provided to The New York Times. “This is a logistical nightmare.”

Four months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, a picture is emerging of the contracts awarded in the earliest days of the crisis. And examples like the Tribute contract are causing lawmakers to raise questions about FEMA’s handling of the disaster and whether the agency was adequately prepared to respond.

On Tuesday, Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, which has been investigating the contract, asked Representative Trey Gowdy, the committee chairman, to subpoena FEMA for all documents relating to the agreement. Lawmakers fear the agency is not lining up potential contractors in advance of natural disasters, leading it to scramble to award multimillion-dollar agreements in the middle of a crisis. [. . .]

But there is little doubt that in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans struggled with access to food. The storm shut down ports on an island that imports about 85 percent of its food supply. Farms were flattened. Supermarkets lost electricity and could not find diesel to run their generators. The stores that opened using generator power could not offer much from their understocked shelves.

Puerto Ricans depended heavily on emergency aid dispatched by FEMA. The Department of Homeland Security has doled out more than $1 billion in contracts related to Hurricane Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.

On Oct. 3, FEMA awarded one of its largest food contracts to Tribute. For $5.10 each, the company agreed to provide 30 million ready-to-eat meals by Oct. 23.

Ms. Brown described herself in an interview as a government contractor — “almost like a broker,” she said — who does not keep employees or specialize in any field but is able to procure subcontracted work as needed, and get a cut of the money along the way. She claims a fashion line and has several self-published books, and describes herself on Twitter as “A Diva, Mogul, Author, Idealist with scars to prove it.”

After Tribute’s failure to provide the meals became clear, FEMA formally terminated the contract for cause, citing Tribute’s late delivery of approved meals. Ms. Brown is disputing the termination. On Dec. 22, she filed an appeal, arguing that the real reason FEMA canceled her contract was because the meals were packed separately from the heating pouches, not because of their late delivery. Ms. Brown claims the agency did not specify that the meals and heaters had to be together.

She is seeking a settlement of at least $70 million. Her subcontractors, Cooking With A Star LLC, and Breedlove Foods Inc., have threatened to sue her for breach of contract, Ms. Brown said. Kendra Robinson, the caterer who runs Cooking With A Star, said she has about 75,000 meals her company prepared for FEMA sitting in an Atlanta warehouse.

In a statement, FEMA said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on a contract pending an appeal. But the agency noted it continues to provide meals to Puerto Ricans, despite an error by an agency spokesman last week that suggested the emergency aid would stop.

“At the time of the contract termination there were ample commodity supplies in the pipeline, and distribution was not affected,” said Mr. Booher, the agency spokesman. “During the 2017 hurricane season FEMA sourced over 200 million meals through multiple vendors in order to support disaster response activities across multiple disasters.” [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/06/us/fema-contract-puerto-rico.html

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