Tag Archives: FEMA

The Heavy Cost of Ignoring Biosurveillance



It’s crucial that any such network be independent of governments and left in the hands of public health officials. The data it gathers should not be filtered through bad actors such as the Chinese Communist Party, or elected officials who may have a political agenda.

One day — hopefully soon — big international meetings will return and the next Biosurveillance Conference will be held in a bigger venue with a lot more participants.”


“It was Aug. 28, 2012 in a Washington, D.C., hotel near Union Station where the National Defense Industrial Association held its first and only Biosurveillance Conference.

It was lightly attended — if memory serves. I’ll be charitable and say there were 75 attendees in the smallish room.

At least one of them — myself — was in the wrong place. Biosurveillance? I thought it would be about sensors. I was expecting to hear about typical defense and homeland security technologies designed to detect bioweapons — something akin to the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch program, or what the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense wanted. The agenda included Defense Threat Reduction Agency personnel.

No, actually, the attendees were mostly in the public health field, and they were talking about a worldwide database where doctors, public health officials, veterinarians and the like could report what they were seeing as far as new infectious diseases.

They likened the concept to weather reports. The world has a network of sensors that tells meteorologists what’s happening in the atmosphere. With the data, they can warn people if a storm is coming and citizens can prepare. The public health officials wanted to do the same for infectious diseases: manmade or natural. And the far-term goal would be to do predictive analysis — just like weather forecasts.

Here is an example: let’s say a doctor in China — let’s just say Wuhan, China — noticed an unusual number of cases of patients with a new respiratory disease marked by an unusually high fatality rate. He would then input that information into a database accessible to public health officials throughout the world. Then, let’s just say, doctors in South Korea or Italy, noticed the same thing. Analysts could connect the dots and sound the alarm. Hospitals could stock up on items such as, let’s say, face masks and respirators.

What I learned at that one-day conference ended up being part of a story that ran in the November 2012 issue. NDIA members with their expertise in information technology could have a lot to offer building such a network, I reasoned, so it was worth reporting.

Let’s pull some quotes out of that 2012 story.

Harshini Mukundan, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said diseases emerge from people, plants and animals.

“They are all interconnected, and having separate agencies monitoring each one defeats the cause.”

Laurie Garrett, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the technical part of setting up a biosurveillance network could be completed in five to 10 years. Policies and procedures were the roadblocks. “I don’t believe we have the capacity or the will to implement” it, she said. U.S. political gridlock would prevent the idea from moving forward, she predicted.

Jason Pargas, special assistant to the DTRA director, sounded an optimistic tone. It could all come to fruition in five to 10 years. Prediction models, applied math and advanced computing would make it so.

The reporting that emerged from this conference ended up in the article, “Top Five Threats to National Security in the Coming Decade.” We ranked “Bio-Threats” as No. 1. Yikes. I don’t even want to mention what the other four were for fear of a jinx.

I would like to say that National Defense consistently reported on this issue and that we kept up a constant drumbeat for the need of a worldwide biosurveillance network, but that is not the case. Public health really isn’t in our wheelhouse.

However, two years later in 2015, we did an update online, which was reported from an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association homeland security conference.

No progress had been made on a biosurveillance network, Jeff Runge, former chief medical officer at DHS, said at the conference. That year saw a deadly strain of the flu that killed many children and an Ebola outbreak.

“The rate and scope and spread of the illnesses were not detected before severe consequences occurred,” he said. “These are cautionary tales underscoring the need for better biological intelligence.”

Navy Cmdr. Janka Jones, then the director of medical programs in the office of the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense, said, “We’ve got a lot of capability. We don’t have a lot of money to build new capability.”

Transparency, openness and data sharing would be key, she said. Jones helped the Obama administration in 2012 put together the first-ever national strategy on biosurveillance. It was released in July, shortly before the NDIA Biosurveillance Conference. It included a technology roadmap on how to build the information-sharing network.

“Biosurveillance — including early detection — is one of our first lines of defense against these threats,” President Barack Obama wrote in the introduction to the strategy.

National Defense took its eye off the ball when it comes to biosurveillance — but so did a lot of people, apparently. That won’t be the case in the future.

Granted, there are policy, procedure and diplomatic hurdles to overcome, but how much funding would it have cost to set up an initial biosurveillance network — $100 million, $200 million? Seems like a paltry investment when more than $1 trillion is being spent on an economic bailout, lives have been lost and entire industries brought to their knees.”


$3,700 Generators and $666 Sinks: FEMA Contractors Charged Steep Markups on Puerto Rico Repairs


FEMA Contractor-Guide-300x279

                                             Image: FEMA Contractors Guide

NEW YORK TIMES” By Frances Robles

“Extravagant markups, overhead and multiple levels of middlemen have helped lead to huge costs in the FEMA-financed repair program.

Known as Tu Hogar Renace — Your Home Reborn — the program is spending $1.2 billion in Puerto Rico to repair up to 120,000 homes.”

“Juan F. Rodríguez had substantial damage to his house in northeastern Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria slammed through in September 2017, but he felt better when he was told that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would pay for $5,000 in repairs.

The contractor hired by Puerto Rico’s FEMA-financed housing recovery program treated the roof with sealant, replaced four feet of cabinets and installed smoke detectors around his house with Velcro.

“I looked around and said, ‘Wait a minute, that treatment costs $100, and I can buy those cabinets for $500,’” Mr. Rodríguez said. “I know. I worked construction. Let’s say they did $2,000 worth of work, because prices are high now and you have to pay for labor. But $5,000?”

Mr. Rodríguez wasn’t the only homeowner who complained after the devastating storm — the worst to hit Puerto Rico in 89 years — that federal taxpayers were being charged far more for emergency home repairs than residents ever saw in improvements to their homes.


CreditSaul Martinez for The New York Times


More than 60 percent of what FEMA is spending in the program, the largest emergency housing program in the agency’s history, is not paying for roofs, windows or doors, The New York Times found in a review of its expenditures. Instead, it is going toward overhead, profit and steep markups.

Homeowners, who were approved for up to $20,000 each in aid, in nearly every case received less than half of what they were approved for, while layers of contractors and middlemen took the rest, a review of hundreds of invoices and contracts associated with the program shows.

The significant costs of transportation, warehousing, insurance and other services that are built into the prices for repairs are not unusual for FEMA disaster relief programs, which reflect the substantial expense of operating in disaster zones. But in Puerto Rico those costs were often so much greater than what would have been possible if homeowners had done the work themselves that they caused a public uproar.

A local opposition legislator, Luis Vega Ramos, called the housing program, which is operated by the Puerto Rico Department of Housing with FEMA funding, a mixture of “incompetence and corruption.” He called for federal investigators to examine the contracts awarded to repair companies to make sure the government was getting what it paid for.

“The government’s responsibility is to watch out, to be custodians of the proper and effective use of those funds,” he said. “I don’t understand why they need to pay hundreds of millions of those dollars to middlemen who turn around and permit overpricing.”

The pricing issues and widespread complaints of long waits and shoddy work highlight the challenges of managing a billion-dollar disaster aid program in a region that is far from the mainland, with institutions that historically have had limited outside oversight or accountability.

Puerto Rico housing officials said they were proud of the repair program, and that prices were in many cases less than those paid in other disasters, including repairs after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the Virgin Islands, which have similar transport challenges.

Michael Byrne, FEMA’s federal coordinating officer for Puerto Rico, said the housing department had done an impressive job of getting homes repaired quickly for people who had nowhere else to turn.

“By the end of November, I fully expect them to have repaired about 120,000 homes,” Mr. Byrne said. “That’s pretty impressive.”

Records show a large gap between the amounts FEMA contractors hired by the Department of Housing were paid and the actual cost of the work that was ultimately performed. Across the board, from removing debris and cleaning mold to repairing roofs and installing appliances, the amounts for labor and materials that were paid to the people who actually performed the work were only about 40 percent of what FEMA was assessed, meaning homeowners got less help than many of them expected.

In case after case, a door worth about $50 would be billed to FEMA at perhaps $700, with a succession of intermediary contractors passing along costs and profits along the way, according to María Elena Villalobos, who worked as both an inspector and an administrator for several companies in the housing repair program. “A lot of the money went down the drain,” Ms. Villalobos said.

The Tu Hogar Renace program was intended for homes that were not damaged enough to be considered destroyed, and could be made habitable with relatively quick remedies like roof repairs, electrical work and the replacement of doors and windows, sinks, toilets and appliances.

The housing department hired seven major contractors to do the repair work and two more firms to manage the program. The job was so expansive and the timeline so tight that the companies hired subcontractors, who in turn hired smaller companies to carry out the actual repairs.

Thousands of Puerto Ricans are still living in ruined homes.CreditDennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The New York Times


Money allocated by federal programs was barely enough to cover repairs for many homeowners.CreditDennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The New York Times

The private company that received a separate $202 million contract to manage the overall Tu Hogar Renace program, Adjusters International, was itself run by a former senior FEMA official, Daniel A. Craig, who worked at the agency during the Bush administration and was the Trump administration’s nominee to be deputy director of FEMA last year. He was forced to withdraw after the Project on Government Oversight let some members of Congress know that the inspector general’s office had investigated Mr. Craig for going on job interviews with companies that had received no-bid contracts after Hurricane Katrina.

The investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, but Mr. Vega, the Puerto Rican opposition legislator, questioned how Mr. Craig’s company had come to be selected to run the program. Adjusters International was chosen by the housing department after a bidding process.

Mr. Craig, in an interview, said his company won the contract as a result of its capabilities, not because of any past connections to FEMA. Contracts establishing prices for goods and services were not within the scope of his company’s management oversight, but were handled directly by the housing department, he said.

Mr. Craig’s company was not the only one with connections. One of the seven major contractors doing the repairs for Tu Hogar Renace — Excel Construction, based in Baton Rouge, La. —  donated $100,000 in 2016 to Trump Victory, a joint fund-raising committee set up by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee.

The bureaucracy around the housing repairs was so complex that the first repairs did not begin until more than five months after the hurricane. A full year after the September 2017 storm, a New York Times review found that thousands of Puerto Ricans were still living in ruined houses. For many of them, the FEMA money left over after trickling down through so many middlemen hardly made a dent in what they needed.

Lisandra Oquendo, who lives in Punta Santiago on Puerto Rico’s eastern coast, was told that her house had been approved for $18,000 in FEMA repair funds, and she was stunned at how little was accomplished with the money. The contractors patched up her roof, gave her a generator, replaced more than a dozen broken window crank operators, installed several appliances, two windows and a door, and cleaned mold off the walls. But because her roof is made of concrete, she said, they told her they could not repair it.

“They said, ‘We don’t do paint, we don’t do floors, we don’t work with cement,’” she said. “So what do you do?”

Contractors have said that the rates they collect cover a variety of expenses, including shipping fees, workers’ compensation insurance, vehicle and warehouse rental, taxes and profit. But prices charged for equipment and appliances often bore little relation to what was charged on the retail market, even in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

According to Department of Housing records, FEMA paid for about 12,400 people to receive generators at a cost of $3,700 each. The 5,500-watt portable devices and supplies they came with cost the contractors about $800 each, other documents show. FEMA paid $666 apiece for new bathroom sinks, but the contractors who actually bought and installed them paid $260 apiece. FEMA paid almost $4 a square foot to repair roofs; the work was done by subcontractors for $1.64 a foot.

The deal the Department of Housing signed required smoke detectors in every sleeping area, so each of the 122,000 houses in the program was equipped with the devices, for which FEMA was billed $82 apiece. A receipt reviewed by The New York Times showed that one subcontractor ordered them in bulk from an Ace Hardware store in the city of Aguadilla for $6.99 each.

“Fifty-eight percent is being taken off the top as overhead and profit from the two contractors above us,” said Brandon Padgett, owner of BVP Construction in Houston, which conducted repairs on 52 houses under the program. “Is there 58 percent overhead and profit needed to implement this? No, because we are doing 90 percent of the work.”

Several smaller companies, including Mr. Padgett’s, which were required to buy their materials from the middlemen, registered complaints with FEMA and with Puerto Rico’s consumer affairs agency, saying that the markups amounted to illegal price gouging.

James Little, who owns J & G Construction in Texas, a company hired as a subcontractor to carry out repairs, said that a lot of the markup was legitimate, because the principal contractors who split up the work had to rent vehicles, pay for warehouses and fly hundreds of people to the island. But some of it, he said, was just greed.

Both Mr. Little and Mr. Padgett are involved in payment disputes with LionsGate Disaster Relief, the Louisiana subcontractor that hired them.

A LionsGate official said prices charged for repairs were reasonable, given the constraints under which companies were operating in the aftermath of the storm, which left large areas of the island facing fuel and supply shortages.


José Luis Aponte Cruz and Wanda Millán Ruiz at their home in Punta Santiago.CreditErika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times


Ms. Millán said her husband had to reinforce the job Tu Hogar Renace did, because the workers who came did not have any wood or enough nails.CreditErika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

“The prices in Puerto Rico are a little bit higher than what we are used to,” said Kristopher Clark, the chief operations officer for LionsGate. “It’s not a crazy high price. It’s enough for us to make a little bit of money, and enough for the subs to make a little bit of money.”

He said he paid a markup on materials to the two larger companies that hired him. He also charged markups and service fees to the smaller companies that he brought on. But he denied that the prices were unreasonable. “I know our margin is stiff,” he said. “It’s a difficult margin to navigate if we are not doing volume.”

One of the prime contractors that hired Mr. Clark, J.W. Turner Construction, is a veteran disaster relief company that has worked on a number of previous disaster relief programs managed by FEMA. The owner, James W. Turner, said that in several of those cases, the prices charged were even higher. In Puerto Rico, he said, it was insurance and local taxes that brought up the rates.

“The profit percentage is going to be lower in each house in Puerto Rico than any house we have ever done,” Mr. Turner said.

Francisco Díaz-Masso, the owner of a Puerto Rico construction firm that is another one of the prime contractors, said he had to fly in materials because of the urgency of the project, which drove up costs.

“That rate doesn’t show in that price all that’s behind it, all the logistics, the amount of effort, the amount of people putting all this together, the pre-purchasing of most of this,” Mr. Díaz-Masso said.

The Department of Housing said Tu Hogar Renace guidelines for awarding contracts and setting prices were approved by FEMA. The prices charged for equipment and services were opened to bidding and then chosen by a process called “interquartile range,” where the low and high outlier bids for each item are eliminated and all the companies agree to be paid the middle price.

A Department of Housing evaluation committee awarded contracts to all seven companies that submitted bids on time.

FEMA officials said the agency uses a nationwide construction cost database to establish prices, adjusted for “supply chain challenges” in a place such as Puerto Rico.

“Looking at individual line item prices can be inaccurate and misleading,” Mr. Byrne, FEMA’s federal coordinating officer in Puerto Rico, said in a statement. “It doesn’t take into consideration the context of actual location, difficulty of installation and other factors. We will not pay costs that cannot be justified. As with all FEMA programs, we will do a rigorous analysis of what was actually expended. We will only pay for things that were reasonable.”

In an interview with the local Telemundo station, the housing secretary, Fernando Gil Enseñat, suggested that the high prices did not matter, because FEMA was paying them.

“The people, the beneficiaries, don’t have to pay a single cent — these are federal funds,” Mr. Gil said. “If the person had to pay that, obviously that would worry me a lot.”

The housing department declined to make Mr. Gil available for an interview.

Mr. Craig, the ex-FEMA official managing the program, emphasized that Tu Hogar Renace will be the largest undertaking ever attempted under FEMA’s emergency shelter program. He said the program has delivered what it set out to do during a year when much of the island was without electricity and transportation connections were extraordinarily difficult.

“It has been done very efficiently,” he said. “Costwise, for the island of Puerto Rico to get that many people back in their homes that quickly is an incredible undertaking for the program itself, the government of Puerto Rico and the Department of Housing of Puerto Rico.”



Frances Robles is a national and foreign correspondent based in Miami. Before joining The Times in 2013, she worked at the Miami Herald, where she covered Cuba and was based in both Nicaragua and Colombia.



Senate Report Details FEMA Disaster Response Contracting Failures



“The report details many shortcomings of the state of FEMA contracts for disaster response supplies. Before awarding a contract, federal agencies must assess contractor capabilities to deliver the required goods and services. For the most part, FEMA failed to do this. 

A $156 million FEMA contract with the Georgia-based consulting firm Tribute Contracting LLC was terminated “for cause,” having only delivered 50 thousand of the required 30 million meals.  Oddly, the firm, which had little experience in this level of disaster work, consisted of just one person, calling into question why it was tapped for such an important and massive contract. “


“The 2018 hurricane season starts in just over a month. Considering the severity and impact of last year’s storms, the nation should ask if we are adequately prepared for the next major disaster. Unfortunately, the findings of a recent Congressional investigation raise serious concerns.

recent report from the staff of Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Ranking Member of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, calls into question an important aspect of disaster preparations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The report details many shortcomings of the state of FEMA contracts for disaster response supplies.

During the first few days after a major disaster, FEMA is called upon to provide vital supplies to the affected communities. FEMA relies on a network of large supply centersthat can quickly respond, delivering thousands of pallets of basic commodities such as water, food, blankets, plastic tarps for emergency shelter and repairs, electrical generators, and other supplies and equipment. For disasters the size of the 2017 hurricanes that struck the southeastern states and Caribbean, FEMA also has to quickly engage with the private sector to procure and deliver large additional amounts of these same basic commodities.

FEMA is supposed to have “prepositioned” contracts in place before a major disaster. While no one can predict all the needs for a specific disaster, the basic commodities that are needed in very large, easily deliverable quantities don’t change. To ensure that continued delivery is uninterrupted, FEMA should have contracts for these supplies already vetted and ready to act on. This strategy follows current law, which correctly requires that FEMA follow a “contracting strategy that maximizes the use of advance contracts to the extent practical and cost-effective.”

The McCaskill report details how FEMA did not adequately prepare for last year’s hurricane season with prepositioned contracts for at least some disaster commodities. For example, of the $206.9 million in plastic sheeting and tarps contracts for the 2017 hurricanes, only 3.5 percent was through prepositioned contracts. In fact, FEMA had only three prepositioned contracts for tarps and none for plastic sheeting before the start of the 2017 hurricane season. After the hurricane disasters struck the United States, FEMA needed to award eleven additional contracts for those basic commodities.

And the new contracts weren’t vetted through the appropriate process. Media outlets had previously reported on contracting failures for plastic sheeting and tarps. However, the McCaskill report described a broader context of contract failure by FEMA. While contracts can fail at times due to reasons beyond the control of an agency, the report gave examples of glaring problems in FEMA’s review process. For example, FEMA awarded $73 million in new contracts for plastic sheeting and tarps to companies that had formed just months earlier and had little or no experience with the product.

It is worth noting that there were other reported FEMA contracting failures beyond what was examined in the McCaskill report. Worse, in 2016, the Government Publishing Office (GPO) terminated “for default” an unrelated Tribute contract to make 3,000 tote bags, and excluded the company from receiving further contracts above $35,000 until January 7, 2019, unless “there is a compelling reason.” The GPO’s contract exclusion should have raised red flags for FEMA because the federal government’s own database clearly lists the Tribute contract prohibition.

Most importantly, the McCaskill report revealed that many of the problematic contracts resulted in delayed delivery of the commodities to those in need within affected communities.

During a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on April 11, FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long discussed the report, admitting that “I realize we got work.” He assured the panel that FEMA will address the contracting problems.

POGO will continue to press federal agencies to adequately prepare for the next major disaster. A good place to start would be to improve contracting procedures at FEMA in order to ensure that vital supplies and services reach those suffering in the aftermath of a disaster.”



Disaster Relief Needs Oversight to Stop Waste and Fraud


Katra Fraud Image FBI.gov

Image:  FBI.gov


“Better oversight on the front end can prevent fraud and keep the government from doing business with dishonest or under-qualified contractors.

Congress and the administration must ensure that our money is responsibly spent on assistance to communities in need rather than lining the pockets of disaster profiteers or otherwise wasted.”

“In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Houston and vast swaths of south and east Texas have been devastated. Wildfires currently rage in Oregon and Washington State, leading to mandatory evacuations in some communities. Hurricane Irma in the Atlantic has strengthened to a powerful Category 5 storm; it threatens U.S. territories in the Caribbean, as well as Florida and the southeastern United States.

Despite an outpouring of community support and neighborly charity, large natural disasters require billions of dollars in aid from the federal government for short-term and long-term needs such as housing, cleanup, and infrastructure rebuilding. The aid is spent directly by federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), funneled to state and local governments, and outsourced to contractors.

Congress is rightfully planning on passing legislation to provide disaster relief.  For guidance on how to implement robust disaster aid oversight, policymakers might want to read POGO’s 2006 report on lessons from Hurricane Katrina, or the final report of Congress’s Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina.

The potential for waste and fraud is great. In an annual report issued in 2012, the Justice Department’s Disaster Fraud Task Force stated that, “In cases related to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma alone, the task force through FY 2011 prosecuted 1,439 individuals in 47 federal districts throughout the country. These prosecutions involved a wide variety of fraudulent activity, including charity scams, government and private-sector benefit fraud, identity theft, contract and procurement fraud, and public corruption.”

The Justice Department continues those efforts. Its National Center for Disaster Fraud is based in Louisiana and is run by Corey Amundson, the Acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana. He recently spoke with NPR about the risks of fraud in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

“It starts with charity fraud, contractor fraud, emergency assistance fraud. And it evolves into program fraud as the monies come from the federal government,” Amundson said. He predicted that “this will likely be a 5- to 7-year odyssey and war against this fraud in its various iterations.”

False Claims Act case prosecuted by Amundson’s office 5 years after Hurricane Katrina highlights how these fraud schemes work and provides lessons on how to prevent similar situations from occurring.

Less than a week after Katrina made landfall in Louisiana in 2005, C. Henderson Consulting, Inc. (CHCI), a small consulting company in Texas, won a $5.2 million contract from FEMA to provide ambulances to help medical personnel evacuate hospitals and nursing homes dealing with the flooding and devastation wrought by Katrina. The FEMA contract was awarded through the General Services Administration (GSA), initially for a period of 60 days. With subsequent amendments to the contract, its value shot up to nearly $19 million. The company would earn $3,100 per day for each ambulance provided.

CHCI was supposed to provide roughly half of the 100 ambulances FEMA contracted to help with the evacuation. Yet the company and its owners, Charles Henderson and Richard Bell, “had never before been in the ambulance business, and had no prior experience providing this type of service,” according to the complaint the U.S. Attorney’s office filed in the case.

“Despite this lack of experience, Henderson held himself out to GSA and FEMA as the owner of an ambulance company, i.e., (CHCI) and able to provide properly equipped ambulances and qualified staff to operate them,” the complaint alleged. According to the government, after winning the FEMA contract Henderson and his company quickly cobbled together relationships with subcontractors who were able to provide some ambulances and personnel, but not enough of either. However, CHCI proceeded to bill FEMA for ambulances it never provided. On September 4, 2005—six days after Katrina struck New Orleans—CHCI billed for 19 ambulances when it actually provided 11. On September 10, CHCI charged FEMA for 66 ambulances but only provided 27.

FEMA took them at their word and overpaid, according to the lawsuit. The government accused CHCI of bilking taxpayers of nearly $2 million.

Charles Henderson settled the lawsuit in 2011 by agreeing to pay the government nearly $3 million.

After Katrina, there was a widespread ambulance shortage in the region. Thus, disaster relief fraudsters not only put taxpayer dollars at risk, but lives as well.

Congress’s investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), referred to the CHCI contract and other egregious instances of fraud and waste in a 2006 report that recommended ways to improve federal disaster recovery contracting practices.

“Our fieldwork identified examples where unclear responsibilities and poor communications resulted in poor acquisition outcomes,” the GAO reported. “FEMA tasked GSA to write three contracts in Louisiana for base camps, hotel rooms, and ambulances, with a total value of over $120 million. GSA contracting officers awarded the contracts, but could not tell us which FEMA officials would be responsible for overseeing contractor performance. The FEMA official identified as the main point of contact by GSA did not have any knowledge of these contracts or who was responsible for oversight.” [emphasis added]

In our 2006 report on Hurricane Katrina, POGO observed that “poor oversight in the award and monitoring stages of contracting is one of the most recurrent problems in the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.” In an era of Yelp, Angie’s List, and online Better Business Bureau listings, not to mention the government’s own digital databases on past performance and contractor responsibility, there is no excuse for awarding multi-million dollar contracts without performing adequate due diligence beforehand, even in the midst of an ongoing disaster.

On the back end, oversight offices such as the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG) are critical to catching bad actors. While the Justice Department prosecuted the CHCI ambulance fraud case, it was DHS OIG that investigated the matter and arrested the company’s owner, according to the Disaster Fraud Task Force’s 2012 report. According to the report, “through the efforts of DHS OIG, 81 persons were indicted or otherwise criminally charged, and 143 individuals were convicted, in disaster fraud investigations.”

But DHS OIG’s budget may be facing a cut, even as disaster-related spending at FEMA, in addition to spending on border security and immigration enforcement at other DHS offices, is ramping up.

As Congress appropriates disaster relief funds to help communities in need, it must put a high priority on oversight. A dollar lost to fraud or waste is a dollar that isn’t helping Americans struggling in the wake of a disaster.”


Homeland Security Must Manage Risk – Not Events




“The department’s mitigation programs, relationships with states and localities, and emerging analytic capability make it the ideal hub for a risk management mission.

The DHS isn’t doing its job because it doesn’t know what its job is.

Rather than combating terrorism, the department should refocus its mission around combating risks of all kinds.

It was created as a mishmash of 22 disparate agencies in the rush to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks. Congress and the president created the department with the explicit mission of preventing terrorism, but they included unrelated agencies that needed a home, while other important terrorism- or disaster-related agencies were left out.

Today, the department’s management spends much of its precious time responding to the headline of the day across multiple missions of protecting the border, preparing for natural disasters, and managing airport screeners. Its frontline employees don’t fare any better — the agency routinely tops the list of worst places to work in government. Fortunately, the department can do better. Public administration scholars have found that one of the best ways to improve job satisfaction is to make missions and goals more clear and less ambiguous.

Fixing the department requires jettisoning the holding company model and leaving the job of curbing terrorist threats to the Department of Justice, which houses the FBI. Without terrorism at the center, the agency can refocus on assessing and reducing an array of risks for natural and technological disasters. For any particular threat, such as terrorism or hurricanes, risk is a function of the probability of the threat multiplied by the potential consequences.  That sounds simple enough, but if done correctly it could transform how we prepare for disasters and make the country safer.

Right now, the DHS manages siloed programs to prepare for many different kinds of threats. But it is difficult to prioritize investments across different threats over time. A reformed department would compare the risks posed by hurricanes, forest fires, tornadoes, radiological “dirty bombs,” and cyber attack. Some defenses, such as concrete barriers, can reduce the damage caused by both floods and terrorism. The department could also assess risks over time. Investing in mitigation, or reducing the damage caused by disasters before they happen, is cheaper than coming to the rescue after a disaster. A report from the Multihazard Mitigation Council found that mitigation saves society an average of $4 saved for every $1 spent. It is difficult to convince politicians and department leaders to spend  money on mitigation, however, because they cannot easily take credit for helping to prevent a disaster that never happened, or that might not happen on their watch.

The DHS’ disaster management arm, FEMA, already offers grants to states and localities to build mitigation programs. But these programs are modest, and FEMA employees make up less than two percent of the department. Extending the mission of FEMA’s modest mitigation directorate would reorient the department around illustrating what risks society faces and what investments would reduce them. There is much work to be done. Convincing cash-strapped jurisdictions to spend money on mitigation requires evidence that the cost is worth it.

Some department officials say that they are already doing risk management. When compared with the careful forecasts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the exhaustive reports of the General Accountability Office, however, DHS products come up short. Building on analytic capacity from other agencies and the privacy sector could make the DHS the government face for information about risk.

For all the complaints that cities make about the department, the DHS has closer ties to cities and states than do most of the expert science agencies in the federal government. DHS border agents work closely with state and local police, and FEMA operates grant programs with every state and many counties. The department’s connections to the street level could be significantly enhanced with a sharper focus on risk management that leverages these existing relationships.

A reinvigorated DHS would leave chasing terrorists to better equipped agencies, jettisoning the ostensible reason for the department’s creation. Its new and expanded mission of assessing, illustrating, and reducing risks of disasters of all kinds is better suited for the 21st century. The world may not be more dangerous than it was in the last century, but it is more complex.”