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The Federal Emergency Management Agency auctioned off 34,496 unused meal kits this week, as their expiration date neared, that had been earmarked for distribution in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
The auction for the meals had drawn five bids as of Tuesday night with the highest being $280 for all of them. On Wednesday, a sixth bid came in at $510. Then a seventh and an eighth.
That final, winning bid was $10,010.
But in 2017, the price for one of those meals, known as an MRE or Meal Ready to Eat, ranged from $4.55 to $4.75, according to FEMA. That means that on the low end, the cost to taxpayers for those unused meals was nearly $157,000.
Their original expiration dates were in November and December 2018, but FEMA said they were inspected in October and the expiration dates were extended until April 2019.
These particular meals were brought to the island in February, but once the Puerto Rico government determined MREs were no longer needed, FEMA stopped distributing them, said FEMA spokesman Juan Rosado Reynes, adding that the Puerto Rican government told the agency that it no longer needed the MREs this summer.
FEMA said its logistics teams reached out to other disaster operations to make sure their meal requirements were met, and since no state or local government agency expressed interest in the meals, they were made available to the public for sale.
“When meals are not used during the response phase, they are then stored in a FEMA warehouse,” Reynes said.
But Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan and an outspoken critic of the federal government’s response, said it showed a collapse of FEMA’s distribution system.
“It’s an example of bureaucracy inefficiency,” she said. “It reinforces the general feeling of the Puerto Rican people that FEMA did not do their job.”
FEMA said it delivered more than 63 million meals to Puerto Rico following Maria’s landfall in September 2017. The agency said it has more meals on the island with 2020 and 2022 expiration dates.
In an internal report released this summer, FEMA acknowledged it failed to properly prepare for last year’s hurricane season and couldn’t provide enough support to Puerto Rico.
The report found that Puerto Rico’s warehouses were almost empty when Hurricane Maria struck because many supplies had already been sent to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which also suffered significant damage.
Massive communications challenges in Puerto Rico also hampered the recovery effort, the report found, and the agency didn’t have enough working satellite phones to distribute through the island. FEMA “had little information about the status of infrastructure,” which hurt its ability to respond in the first 72 hours after landfall.