Palletized food and water at Dover Air Force Base, Del., prior to being airlifted to support relief efforts in Puerto Rico and St. Croix after the wake of Hurricane Maria. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Keith James)
Thanks to the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS), taxpayers can start keeping a closer watch over some of the billions of dollars the US government is paying contractors to address the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
FPDS posts regularly updated spreadsheets containing a wealth of data about relief contracts awarded in response to the three hurricanes that made landfall in the United States and its territories this year: Hurricane Harvey, which pummeled Texas and Louisiana in late August and early September, Hurricane Irma, which cut a destructive swath through Florida in mid-September, and Hurricane Maria, which days later inflicted massive damage on Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
There are three caveats: First, the data only tracks contracts—not other types of spending, such as grants and assistance to individuals and local governments, or other forms of federal relief aid such as military transport. Second, according to FPDS, the data “represents a portion of the work that has been awarded to date,” due in part to the challenges some contracting offices—particularly those located in disaster recovery areas—are facing as they try to feed timely and accurate contracting data into the system. Third, for military operational security concerns, the availability of Defense Department data is subject to a 90-day delay.
According to the data, as of October 19, the federal government has awarded a total of $1.65 billion for supply and service contracts to aid and rebuild areas damaged by the storms: $794.8 million for Harvey, $368.7 million for Irma, and $492.7 million for Maria. More than three-quarters ($1.3 billion) of the total was awarded under full and open competition. About 94 percent of the total has been spent by the Department of Homeland Security, mainly through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the US Coast Guard.
FPDS tracks the principal place of performance of the contract, which is defined as “the location of the principal plant or place of business where the items will be produced, supplied from stock, or where the service will be performed.” Hurricane Harvey primarily affected Texas and Louisiana, yet those two states are the principal place of performance for just 3 out of every 10 contract dollars. For Hurricane Irma, Florida is the principal place of performance for about 36 percent of the contract expenditures, while Puerto Rico is the locus of 56 percent of Hurricane Maria contract spending. The US Virgin Islands were battered by both Irma and Maria, but the territory— home to 100,000 US citizens—has been the place of performance for just 2 percent and .09 percent of Irma and Maria contract expenditures, respectively.
The most lucrative contracts so far have been awarded by FEMA to address the immediate needs of the victims of Hurricane Maria. One was a $122 million task order awarded to Disaster Solutions Alliance, a joint venture involving top 100 contractor URS Corporation, “to execute a feeding mission” in Puerto Rico. The other was a $118 million order placed with Florida-based engineering firm Team Systems International to deliver 80 million liters of bottled water to Puerto Rico. The current top hurricane relief contractor is medical transportation company American Medical Response, with $153.8 million in awards.
Description of Requirement
Execute a feeding mission in Puerto Rico to support Hurricane Maria survivorsPurchase 80 million liters of bottled water to be delivered to Puerto RicoManufacture housing unitsProvide an estimated 325,000 housing inspection services in the state of FloridaProcure meals
Contract expenditures for the three hurricanes grew at vastly different rates during the first two weeks, based on our analysis of the data posted at the time. For all three storms, spending increased very little for the first three to four days after landfall. After the fourth day, Harvey contract spending surged and continued to grow rapidly over the next eight days. Irma spending spiked on day six, but then grew very slowly over the following week. We were particularly intrigued by the spending trend for Hurricane Maria. Even though Maria was the last of the three storms—when, presumably, the government was most ready to initiate the recovery effort—the amount spent on relief contracts remained a relative pittance and barely grew at all during the first five days. After the fifth day, contract spending began to grow slowly and then grew sharply after day nine.
As the recovery efforts shift over the coming weeks from providing temporary relief to performing large-scale cleanup and infrastructure rebuilding, Harvey/Irma/Maria contract spending will grow exponentially. Eventually, it could even eclipse contract spending for both Hurricane Sandy (nearly $3 billion) and Hurricane Katrina (more than $20 billion), which means the risk of fraud and waste will also grow exponentially. In fact, Congress and the FBI are already hot on the trail of suspected mishandling of federal funds and resources flowing into Puerto Rico. Past experience has taught us that corruption related to natural and man-made disasters takes many forms and can take many years to investigate.