Tag Archives: Hurricanes

Meet The Veterans Self-Deploying To Puerto Rico To Provide Aid

Vets Deploying to Puerto Rico

Military veterans Chris Davis, Jose Aguilar, Jason Maddy and Eric Reeves volunteering as aid workers in Anasco, Puerto Rico. Photo via Jason Maddy


“As emergency relief legislation works its way through Congress, veterans aren’t waiting around.

A group of veteran first responders, Iraq and Afghanistan vets operating under the moniker Warfighter Disaster Response Team, set up a pop-up headquarters at a derelict airport in Mayaguez to coordinate aid to more-remote towns — even offering up some advice to the Pentagon in terms of Maria response.”

“Chris Agron never deployed to a war zone during his stint in the Army. After four years in South Korea and a year with the 5th Ranger Training Battalion at Fort Benning, Georgia, the 24-year-old combat medic specialist separated in 2017 to take up a “really sweet gig” as a youth minister at a parish in Antelope, California. “My contract literally just ended this August,” Agron told Task & Purpose. “I never saw combat.”

That was until Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. Local officials described the resulting damage as “apocalyptic,” and conditions on the ground have changed little in the intervening months: roughly 77 percent of the island still doesn’t have electricity, and estimates suggest that nearly 1 in 3 residents lack access to clean water, leaving desperate Puerto Ricans turning to contaminated sources like Superfund hazardous waste sites.

The federal government, critics claim, isn’t moving fast enough in its emergency response. The $36.5 billion emergency aid package that passedthe House on Oct. 12 is currently under consideration in the Senate. President Donald Trump asserted that the U.S. military “shouldn’t have to be” distributing food and water to ravaged American territory — but that’s what it’s doing, and the Department of Defense is having troublemarshalling resources like clean water and purification equipment for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, despite a rapid and effective response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma on the U.S. mainland in the weeks before Maria hit.

Agron, also an Army brat, grew up in Puerto Rico before his family PCSed to California; he still has blood relations on the island, including cousins with young children. And after reading news reports describing the meager water supplies trickling in from large aid organizations, he came up with his own mission: to bring reliable, reusable filtration systems to the parched communities on the west side of Puerto Rico.

“It just feels like common sense: Bottled water is finite, hard to deliver, and expendable,” Agron told Task & Purpose. “For one family, an efficient filter will give them 100,000 gallons. It rains every single day in Puerto Rico. I’ve lived there long enough to know that — and you can have enough water to filter just by catching the rain.”

Agron reached out to water filtration company Sawyer, which offered him their reusable mini filters and 170-gallon-a-day bucket adaptor systemsat wholesale prices to ensure he could purchase the supplies he needed. Agron set up a GoFundMe to raise $10,000, enough for at least 300 of Sawyer filters. In the last two weeks, he’s raised 67 percent of his target; he plans on landing in San Juan on Oct. 26 and getting to work immediately.


“I’m 5th RTB, all you do is pretty much ruck through the woods, especially if you’re a medic,” he told Task & Purpose. “I want to bring aid to those who aren’t receiving any because of the road conditions or corruption. I know that anyone who’s been in the military is not afraid to ruck to bring aid to people.”

“There is a lot of stuff getting done, but it could’ve been done so much better if they just brought the National Guard,” WDRT organizer, vet Eric Carlson, told CNN. “All you guys are getting on planes in rotations and going down to Puerto Rico, 15,000 at a time. Water purification units, construction units, engineers, you guys are all coming down every two weeks.

Eric Carlson and a few volunteer vets have fed 35,000 in borrowed trucks

Another contingent of vets, led by former Army cavalry scout Jason Maddy, is using its own cash to purchase supplies, holding things together in neighborhoods until other aid organizations get their bearings.

“We learned through Hurricane Harvey that we were able to move a bit faster than FEMA and other government organizations because we became a ‘smaller task force,’ in a sense,” Maddy told Task & Purpose on Oct. 11. “We haven’t seen a lot of outside aid.”

Agron hopes that removing water scarcity from Puerto Rico’s post-disaster equation will help alleviate other problems cropping up across the island: namely, violence and theft amid the absence over the usual organizations tasked with emergency management.

According to Agron’s family members on the island, conditions “are so much worse than the news let on,” he told Task & Purpose. “The east side of the island is fine, but on the west side, it’s complete anarchy because there’s no supplies and no real law enforcement. People are just stealing things … it’s post-apocalyptic over there.”

Agron plans on linking up with the other vets who have already “self-deployed” to Puerto Rico to bring supplies and make inroads with communities overlooked by the likes of the Red Cross. And it’s there where Agron finally expects to put his military training to good use.
“We’re going to link up with the vets out there because they’re willing to go to where FEMA and the Red Cross are not,” he told Task & Purpose. “Veterans have the skills inherently to serve, and if you have what it takes, there’s no reason not to.”




Harvey, Irma, and Maria: Hurricane Recovery Contract Spending by the Numbers


Hurricane relief


“Thanks to the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS), taxpayers can start keeping a closer watch over some of the billions of dollars the US government is paying contractors to address the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

According to the data, as of October 19, the federal government has awarded a total of $1.65 billion for supply and service contracts to aid and rebuild areas damaged by the storms: $794.8 million for Harvey, $368.7 million for Irma, and $492.7 million for Maria.”

“FPDS posts regularly updated spreadsheets containing a wealth of data about relief contracts awarded in response to the three hurricanes that made landfall in the United States and its territories this year: Hurricane Harvey, which pummeled Texas and Louisiana in late August and early September, Hurricane Irma, which cut a destructive swath through Florida in mid-September, and Hurricane Maria, which days later inflicted massive damage on Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

There are three caveats: First, the data only tracks contracts—not other types of spending, such as grants and assistance to individuals and local governments, or other forms of federal relief aid such as military transport. Second, according to FPDS, the data “represents a portion of the work that has been awarded to date,” due in part to the challenges some contracting offices—particularly those located in disaster recovery areas—are facing as they try to feed timely and accurate contracting data into the system. Third, for military operational security concerns, the availability of Defense Department data is subject to a 90-day delay.

More than three-quarters ($1.3 billion) of the total was awarded under full and open competition. About 94 percent of the total has been spent by the Department of Homeland Security, mainly through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the US Coast Guard.

FPDS tracks the principal place of performance of the contract, which is defined as “the location of the principal plant or place of business where the items will be produced, supplied from stock, or where the service will be performed.” Hurricane Harvey primarily affected Texas and Louisiana, yet those two states are the principal place of performance for just 3 out of every 10 contract dollars. For Hurricane Irma, Florida is the principal place of performance for about 36 percent of the contract expenditures, while Puerto Rico is the locus of 56 percent of Hurricane Maria contract spending. The US Virgin Islands were battered by both Irma and Maria, but the territory— home to 100,000 US citizens—has been the place of performance for just 2 percent and .09 percent of Irma and Maria contract expenditures, respectively.

The most lucrative contracts so far have been awarded by FEMA to address the immediate needs of the victims of Hurricane Maria. One was a $122 million task order awarded to Disaster Solutions Alliance, a joint venture involving top 100 contractor URS Corporation, “to execute a feeding mission” in Puerto Rico. The other was a $118 million order placed with Florida-based engineering firm Team Systems International to deliver 80 million liters of bottled water to Puerto Rico. The current top hurricane relief contractor is medical transportation company American Medical Response, with $153.8 million in awards.

Contract expenditures for the three hurricanes grew at vastly different rates during the first two weeks, based on our analysis of the data posted at the time. For all three storms, spending increased very little for the first three to four days after landfall. After the fourth day, Harvey contract spending surged and continued to grow rapidly over the next eight days. Irma spending spiked on day six, but then grew very slowly over the following week. We were particularly intrigued by the spending trend for Hurricane Maria. Even though Maria was the last of the three storms—when, presumably, the government was most ready to initiate the recovery effort—the amount spent on relief contracts remained a relative pittance and barely grew at all during the first five days. After the fifth day, contract spending began to grow slowly and then grew sharply after day nine.

As the recovery efforts shift over the coming weeks from providing temporary relief to performing large-scale cleanup and infrastructure rebuilding, Harvey/Irma/Maria contract spending will grow exponentially. Eventually, it could even eclipse contract spending for both Hurricane Sandy (nearly $3 billion) and Hurricane Katrina (more than $20 billion), which means the risk of fraud and waste will also grow exponentially. In fact, Congress and the FBI are already hot on the trail of suspected mishandling of federal funds and resources flowing into Puerto Rico. Past experience has taught us that corruption related to natural and man-made disasters takes many forms and can take many years to investigate.”



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.”