When Some is Better Than None: FEMA Accountability after Huracán María

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What is accountability, really? We’ve all tossed the word around and heard it used. Usually one hears “accountability” and thinks of “responsibility.” According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, accountability is defined as follows: “the quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”[1]

Now what does accountability have to do with Puerto Rico and Hurricane María? This concept of accountability is central to the failures we have seen in Puerto Rico since it was hit by María. The people of Puerto Rico are our brothers and sisters—they are our fellow United States citizens. As a student in the University at Buffalo School of La Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic [ hotlink], I have been looking closely at these issues since December. These people were in need of—and many are still in need of—basic life necessities, like water, shelter, electricity, and food.

Now, here is where the accountability comes in: when a natural disaster affects our country, we have government agencies in place to step up and help our citizens. The main agency responsible for coordinating relief efforts is the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is charged with establishing contracts with vendors to provide needed services: food, water, tarps, electricity. Hurricane María struck the island of Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, resulting in a humanitarian crisis. Now that we are in February 2018, it’s easier to step back and look at the efficacy of our government’s response in helping our fellow citizens. FEMA was responsible for—and should be held accountable for accountable—in securing contracts to help these people.

So, how did FEMA’s response chock up? Unfortunately, not very well, when one looks beyond “official” statistics. The three essential contracts needed immediately in Puerto Rico were all secured with small companies with no proven track record of providing such services—and then the contracts were cancelled before any progress was made. The $30 million contract to provide tarps? Cancelled. The $300 million contract to reconstruct the destroyed electrical infrastructure on the island? Cancelled. The $156 million contract to provide 30 million meals? Cancelled. 2018 is already here and no contracts have been established to replace these services.

But who is accountable for these cancellations—FEMA or the contractors that did not follow through? The accountability lays with FEMA. The agency has drawn large amounts of criticism for hiring new, start-up companies with either proven track records of not being able to fulfill large contracts or no track records at all. Regarding the meals contract, Democrat Elijah Cummings, D-Md., summed up the problem pretty well: “one of the primary reasons FEMA failed to deliver these meals is because it inexplicably awarded a contract worth approximately $156 million to deliver 30 million emergency meals to a tiny, one-person company with a history of struggling with much smaller contracts.”[2] With multiple bids, why would FEMA rely on such unestablished businesses?

And it’s not necessarily fair to fully blame the businesses who took on these contracts for not fulfilling their part of the deal. First of all, FEMA should have picked more appropriate candidates to begin with. Secondly, one has to ask, how committed was FEMA to actually making sure these vital supplies made it to Puerto Rico? According to the owner of Tribute, LLC., the company hired to provide 30 million meals, FEMA cancelled her meals contract over a dispute about providing self-heating meals. Tiffany Brown, the owner of the company claims that she informed FEMA from the beginning that the meals would not be self-heating and the heating packets would be sent along with the meals. Brown claims that she “notified FEMA in [an] Oct. 19 email that 36,000 meals were en route – with the meals packaged separately from the heating component – a FEMA official told her that was not acceptable and told her not to deliver the meals.”[3]

This statement begs the question: wouldn’t 36,000 meals with separate heating packets be better than no meals at all? Apparently FEMA didn’t think so.

The work in Puerto Rico must continue. #UBLawResponds will be joining other legal experts to continue to seek FEMA accountability. You can support our ongoing work here.

 

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/accountability
[2] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/fema-contractor-scapegoat-controversy-canceled-contract/story?id=52915221
[3] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/fema-contractor-scapegoat-controversy-canceled-contract/story?id=52915221