This first appeared in the Panama City Herald
Mention the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Florida, and you’re sure to get a variety of responses. For each person who cheers FEMA for having helped them rebuild after a hurricane, you’re likely to meet one or more who waited too long for help to arrive. According to government auditors, those complainers have a legitimate gripe.
The Government Accountability Office this month released a report titled “2017 Disaster Contracting: Action Needed to Better Ensure More Effective Use and Management of Advance Contracts.” Translation: FEMA isn’t managing contracts with relief providers very well.
FEMA signs advance contracts with companies to provide help after a disaster. It’s a smart way to do things. During the recovery, especially in the first few days, if the agency had to negotiate a bunch of contracts on the fly, it would slow aid delivery and probably cost more. If the deal is sealed in advance, companies can quickly and cost-effectively deliver food, water, tents, blankets, communications equipment, debris-removing machinery, etc.
At least, that’s the theory. The GAO found that in practice, it isn’t working well.
In 2017, advance contracts locked in $4.5 billion to hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria, as well as California wildfires. But FEMA consistently failed to ensure that it got what it paid for. According to the GAO, the agency relied on outdated management strategies, trained its contracting officers poorly and did not communicate clearly with states and localities about what was available.
Those flaws led to contracts being underutilized in Florida, Puerto Rico and other places. Taxpayers, meanwhile, paid for services and relief efforts that didn’t happen.
For example, after Hurricane Irma, contractors who were supposed to remove debris in Florida did not arrive. They also had contracted to provide service in Texas, and Hurricane Harvey had all their equipment tied up.
The GAO concluded that miscommunication was a big factor in problems, especially between the feds, states and localities. Local officials on the ground simply did not know what contracted services were available because FEMA had not communicated it well.
This isn’t a new problem. The GAO wrote a similar report in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. It issued a supplemental report in 2015, noting FEMA was still mismanaging advance contracts.
And here we are, three years later, and the problems persist. After more than a decade, it’s hard to hope that FEMA has the ability and willingness to reform.
Reform, then, must come from outside the agency, and that means Congress or the White House must intervene.
It would help if Congress knew exactly what was going on, but even in that, FEMA has messed up. Auditors discovered that FEMA provided incomplete information about advance contracts in its reports to lawmakers.
The GAO’s report has nine achievable recommendations about ways to improve FEMA’s advance contracting system. They include modernizing contracting strategies and developing better communications protocols.
With Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives in January, reforming FEMA’s contract management is a prime opportunity for bipartisan collaboration.
Surely, members of both parties can agree that delivering disaster relief efficiently and cost-effectively is a priority.