Among the many failures in government planning revealed by Hurricane Katrina, one was particularly striking: No one, it seems, figured out ahead of time who was going to pick up the dead.
When the storm swept through the Gulf of Mexico six weeks ago and left hundreds of bodies to decompose in homes and streets, Louisiana officials looked to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help removing them. But since cities and localities had historically recovered bodies from mass casualties, FEMA says, it had made no arrangements.
So a week after the monster storm struck, FEMA hired Kenyon International Emergency Services Inc., a Texas company that specializes in mobile morgues. Within a few days, however, Kenyon officials complained that the company still had no contract and that it was caught in a "bureaucratic quagmire," asked to do far more than was called for in the original agreement.
The company spurned FEMA and went to work for the state of Louisiana.
The lack of a contract to manage body collection, and the difficulties with Kenyon, fit a pattern of breakdowns in FEMA's relationship with the private sector, a relationship that has become crucial to the agency's workings but that contributed to its flawed response to Katrina. With relatively few resources of its own, FEMA relies on the private sector to provide the manpower and logistical help necessary to deal with a major emergency, but there were major gaps in the arrangements it had made. Many of the contracts it did have were poorly executed because of miscommunication and lack of planning.
To fill the gaps, the agency was forced to acquire much of what it needed on the fly, signing deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars with little or no competition when its bargaining position could not have been worse.
Now under heavy pressure from Congress, FEMA has taken the unusual step of putting out for competition four huge contracts for housing assistance that it originally awarded as no-bid deals.
"There were contracts in place. But obviously they were not adequate," said Richard L. Skinner, the Homeland Security Department inspector general. "I don't think the contracts in place ever contemplated anything this devastating. . . . They weren't prepared upfront to obtain the products and services they would need."
Skinner said his office will take a hard look at whether the contracts signed in the frenzied aftermath of Katrina's landfall cost the government more than they should have. "We're hearing rumors that, yes, we're being gouged. That's exactly what we're looking at," he said.
Joshua I. Schwartz, co-director of the government procurement law program at George Washington University, said that when the government tries to buy what it needs after a major emergency, there is no chance to have an open competition and it loses its ability to get the best possible price. "You don't want to be doing this after a twelve-alarm emergency so your contractors don't have you over a barrel," he said.
Instead, Schwartz said, FEMA should have lined up contracts in advance from which it could draw as need arose. FEMA also could have made better use of government-wide contracts, negotiated by the General Services Administration and others, for which the prices are already set, he said.
In the case of body retrieval, a major problem was the lack of agreement over whose responsibility it was in the first place. FEMA says it has never undertaken such a job. "Body retrieval is a state responsibility," said Nicol Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman, though the agency eventually picks up the cost.
‘Break through the bureaucracy’
But that is not the way Louisiana officials saw it. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) complained that "while recovery of bodies is a FEMA responsibility," no one had been able "to break through the bureaucracy to get this important mission done."
The state does not have the resources to search for and recover the bodies, said Robert Johannessen, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. "I am not aware of any document out there that says whose responsibility it is."
Most of the hurricane-related contracts the government awarded in the weeks after Katrina hit were completed with only limited competition, or none at all. Several have come under close scrutiny, including a $236 million deal for Carnival Cruise Lines to provide temporary shelter for relief workers and another that is paying construction firms more than $2,000 for less than two hours of work installing blue tarp on damaged homes.
Under questioning from lawmakers last week, FEMA's acting director, R. David Paulison, promised that the agency would put out for bid $100 million contracts now held by four giant engineering firms. The temporary housing contracts were initially awarded without bidding, a Homeland Security Department spokesman later said, because an existing contract was nearly at its cap from previous emergencies and the agency needed work to begin immediately.
Paulison, who has been on the job for only three weeks, did not directly criticize the agency's lack of standing contracts. But he did indicate that FEMA plans to handle its contracting differently the next time. "Hopefully we can put things in place for the future where we will not have to depend on no-bid contracts," Paulison said.
The Department of Homeland Security will review whether it needs more contracts in place to confront major disasters, said spokesman Larry Orluskie. But he also cautioned that there is a limit to how much a contractor can reasonably be expected to have at the ready. Such preparation costs companies money that they eventually would ask the government to reimburse.
In some cases after Katrina, FEMA's demands outstripped the capacity of its suppliers. To feed thousands of evacuees in shelters, FEMA at first depended on the military's stash of meals-ready-to-eat. Within a week of the hurricane, FEMA had ordered nearly 1.6 million cases of MREs.
But as demand rose to almost 2 million cases, the Pentagon decided that it had done enough. "We've cut FEMA off from MREs to protect our military customers," said James Lecollier, a contracting officer at the Defense Logistics Agency. "We're happy that we're able to help the folks," he said. But "we get concerned, because we have to feed our troops too."
With the help of the Defense Logistics Agency, FEMA found contractors, competing with the Red Cross and other organizations for packaged meals and spending $35 million to buy 10 million meals from commercial vendors as of Sept. 28.
Crates for pets
FEMA also found that it needed some things it had not planned for, like pet crates. With many Gulf Coast residents refusing to leave their homes unless they could take their animals with them, FEMA called Petsmart Inc. on Sept. 9 and put in an order for a truck full of crates in which to house dogs and cats for the trip out of the crippled region, according to Petsmart spokeswoman Jennifer Pflugfelder. The truck was sent to New Orleans the next morning, but before it could arrive, FEMA called back to cancel the order. The truck turned around.
Two days later, FEMA called again and renewed the order. The next day, FEMA called to say it was not sure. Each time FEMA called, Pflugfelder said, it was a different official. And each time, the official gave no reason for the change. So it went until Sept. 16, when $28,370 worth of crates were finally delivered, a week after the initial order.
"We'll do what we can to assist. But it was certainly frustrating for the company if there was a need for pets to be transported and [the crates] weren't arriving in time," Pflugfelder said.
In other cases, FEMA's use of established contracts was problematic. For example, trucks full of ice spent days crisscrossing the Gulf Coast region after FEMA ordered more than twice what it needed.
By Sept. 5, FEMA had ordered 211 million pounds of ice through IAP Worldwide Services Inc., which charges $11,200 to deliver a 20-ton truckload of ice to a staging location. But FEMA then realized that the computer model it used to decide how much to order did not foresee that thousands of storm victims would be driven from their homes and would not need the ice to keep their food or medicine cold.
Ice to Maine
FEMA was able to cancel some of the orders, leaving it with 189 million pounds. It still was forced to send 52 percent of the ice into storage, filling up facilities throughout the South. Some was even sent to Maine. The ice that was redirected to storage was trucked at a cost of $2.60 a mile.
Much of the remaining ice ordered for Hurricane Katrina was dispatched in response to Hurricane Ophelia, which approached Florida before heading to North Carolina, and Hurricane Rita, which hit East Texas, said Marjorie L. DeBrot, an Army Corps of Engineers emergency manager.
There are 765 truckloads -- 30.6 million pounds -- of Katrina ice still in storage.