Congress Investigates FEMA’s Failure to Deliver 18.5 Million Meals to Puerto Rico

By Ayana Byrd Feb 07, 2018

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria—which devastated Puerto Rico and its access to fresh food on September 20, 2017—the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) prepared to deliver more than 30 million ready-to-eat meals to the island within one month. A congressional committee led by Democrats is now investigating how only 50,000 of those meals were delivered under a contract agreement worth $156 million.

Yesterday (February 6), The New York Times reported on Atlanta-based entrepreneur Tiffany Brown, whose company Tribute Contracting received a $156 million contract to provide the meals. Per the article, she has been awarded more than two dozen contracts since 2007. Brown, says The Times, has “no experience in large-scale disaster relief and at least five canceled government contracts in her past.” As the only employee of her company, she subcontracted the job out to Atlanta companies Cooking With A Star and Breedlove Foods Inc. 

In a few weeks time, 18.5 million meals were due to be sent. Tribute delivered 50,000 to the island. FEMA alleges that not only did Brown come up short, but the meals were not prepared correctly. The food was packaged separately from the heating pouches, but she was supposed to deliver “self-heating” meals. In response, the agency sent Brown an email that read: “Do not ship another meal. Your contract is terminated.”

FEMA says the contract was terminated because of a failure to deliver the meals on time. Brown is appealing the termination and wants a $70 millon settlement. Brown believes “that the real reason FEMA canceled her contract was because the meals were packed separately from the heating pouches, not because of their late delivery. Ms. Brown claims the agency did not specify that the meals and heaters had to be together.” She is also being threatened with lawsuits from her subcontractors.

Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform are now investigating the contract awarded to Tribute. Yesterday (February 6), the committee issued a subpoena to FEMA for all related documents. The investigation highlights the group’s growing conern that FEMA is not preparing in advance of natural disasters by awarding contracts before a crisis hits, leaving it with inadequate time to find the best vendors. Per The Times:

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a bipartisan congressional investigation found that a failure to secure advance contracts led to chaos and potential for waste and fraud. Democrats asserted that FEMA was similarly inept preparing for this storm.

“It appears that the Trump administration’s response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico in 2017 suffered from the same flaws as the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” wrote Representatives Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland and Stacey E. Plaskett, the nonvoting delegate from the United States Virgin Islands.

Brown, who told the newspaper she could have delivered all 18.5 million meals if she’d had two weeks more on the deadline, also admitted that she may not have been the best contractor. “They probably should have gone with someone else, but I’m assuming they did not because this was the third hurricane [after Irma and Harvey],” she said. “They were trying to fill the orders the best they could.”

A FEMA spokesperson claims the agency used other suppliers to ensure that Puerto Ricans received a sufficient number of meals.

More than four months after the hurricane, nearly half a million people in Puerto Rico are still without electricity and unemployment numbers continue to rise.