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The FEMA ice follies revisited

NBC New continues its investigation of the ice situation following  Hurricane Katrina. As Lisa Myers reports, FEMA ordered 185 million pounds of it, but used less than half that amount. So why not just let the rest melt?
/ Source: NBC News

WASHINGTON — When the history of the chaotic Katrina relief effort is written, a chapter will be devoted to ice, and to trucks that toured the country for weeks, many never delivering a single cube to victims. FEMA now says it bought 182 million pounds of ice and that only 40 percent was used. The rest, it says, is being positioned for future storms. 

The rocky coast of Portland, Maine, is nowhere near hurricane territory. Yet 163 truckloads of excess ice bought for Katrina victims are now stored there, 1,600miles from the Gulf Coast. The cost to taxpayers: $153,000.

"FEMA is so disorganized that it's buying ice, trucking it all over the country and placing it as far as possible from the people who could use it," says Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

FEMA is now paying to store 65 million pounds of excess ice in a dozen facilities from Maine to Idaho and in hundreds of trucks, motors running round the clock, to keep it cold.

Dan Wessels' ice company has worked for FEMA for years. He says the cost to taxpayers is absurd.

"A $6,000 load of ice is costing between $25-$35,000," he says.

We previously told you about a truck of ice that left Wisconsin on Sept. 6, went to Louisiana, then was rerouted by FEMA to Georgia, South Carolina and Maryland. Well, after that, the truck was sent to Iowa, and the ice put in storage. Then, when Hurricane Rita hit, that ice was packed up again and taken back to Louisiana, then to Texas, where it's been sitting for the past four days. 

FEMA argues that storing ice costs less than buying new ice, and enables a faster response to the next disaster.

But Wessels and others argue that when you add in transportation costs, it would be much cheaper to let it melt.

"It's a lot smarter to dump the ice," he says.

One frustrated Arizona driver did exactly that. After driving through 22 states, he finally donated his ice to some very appreciative polar bears and other animals at the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson.

Lisa Myers is NBC’s senior investigative correspondent.