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Feeling one-up’ed by Wall St, FEMA proves it can waste liquid assets

To remind us that disposable income is the result of hard work, most of us remember adults saying “money doesn’t grow on trees.” Surprisingly, though, I can’t think of a maxim for the opposite effect: incompetence, and lack of work, makes hard earned money disappear. I’ve got one. When I’m a parent, and my children lazily baulk at their responsibilities, I’ll remind them that “money melts on Texas military airfields.” Admittedly, it’s not very catchy, but it’s appropriate nonetheless. I’ll explain.

Last S­­eptember, Hurricane Ike famously made landfall near Houston, almost prompting Republicans to reschedule their Twin Cities based national convention. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), primed and ready to salvage their dignity after a catastrophic response to Hurricane Katrina, hit the ground running.

Since Katrina, government agencies at all levels got together and reviewed the National Response Framework (NRF), which is essentially the nation’s disaster response playbook. When disaster strikes, FEMA as well as governors, state agencies, city councils, sheriffs, judges, and non-profits review the NRF to recognize who has responsibility for different areas of aid, and who is in charge of each chain of command.

In Ike’s case, the playbook coordinated response and worked extremely well… until our metaphorical head coach (FEMA) either decided to draw up a few trick plays, or ignore the playbook all together.

Without any request from the Texas emergency management agencies, and without informing anyone in the chain of command, FEMA officials ordered 1,442 truckloads of water and 1,147 truckloads of ice through mission assignments to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Great! The more ice the merrier, right? Well, not when state emergency officials deliver more than enough of ice and water already.

With an emergency surplus of a very perishable good, Texas officials were able to negotiate the successful return of more than 400 truckloads of state-purchased ice. FEMA, on the other hand, had no such luck. Instead, they turned the trucks around and sent the surplus ice to Randolph Auxiliary Air Field just outside of San Antonio. One by one, the military trucks dumped their cargo on the grass and drove home. With 558 truckloads of extra ice, purchased by FEMA for $16,661 each, the agency had no choice but to watch $9 million taxpayer dollars—almost literally—melt away under the Texas sun.

Shortly after the incident, FEMA officials said the mass-melt wasn’t the result of poor planning, but just the opposite.

“That ice was surplus ice from the original requests from state and local authorities before the scope of the hurricane was known,” FEMA spokesman Richard Scorza told San Antonio News last September, “We try to anticipate the needs for various commodities.”

Since FEMA’s own inspector general found that neither the state, county, nor local authorities requested any ice, FEMA’s noble preparedness looked more like noble negligence. The surprise delivery was doubly confusing to Texas officials, because just five months earlier FEMA announced that it would no longer provide ice for disasters. Further, just prior to Ike’s landfall, FEMA Region VI emergency managers reiterated this policy by informing the Texas Governor’s Department of Emergency Management that state officials would be responsible for providing ice and water. Nonetheless, the ice was ordered, and nonetheless it was totally wasted.

If there’s good news amid the avoidable government squandering, it’s that FEMA messed up in the right direction. The federal government actually over-responded to an emergency where refrigerated medications could have spoiled, and plenty of victims could have suffered serious injury or death in the summer heat. Next time, though, when FEMA wants to splurge on a service beyond its defined responsibility, they should keep other aid agencies in the loop. A single phone call or E-mail would probably do. Or they could just follow the plan.

As far as I can tell, the incident went unreported in the mainstream press, and was barely acknowledged when FEMA’s inspector general included the incident on page 239 of the Hurricane Ike response report, published this summer.

Just over a year later, is the minor negligence worth noting when the general disaster response was satisfactory? Yes. Dismissing $9 million dollars is dangerous. Regardless of the gravity of the situations in which government administrator are addressing, Americans should expect competence and accountability. Yes, successfully completing the assigned objective—in this case responding to a disaster with the requisite supplies—is the top priority, but citizens should expect responsible stewardship of their hard earned (I mean borrowed) dollars.

Perhaps because it’s difficult to conceptualize what one can buy with $300 million versus $300 billion, citizens seem to have accepted egregiously wasteful government spending in exchange for the intended results of government programs. We shouldn’t have to compromise. Amid a bipartisan habit of hurling money at problems and convincing citizens the problems are being solved, children are learning a new proverb, “Whether it grows on trees or melts away, we’re the US—money’s cheap.”

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