Why FEMA is Making a Big Mistake in Puerto Rico

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Photo: DVIDS
Media Outlet: Politico

Vivian Graubard and Emma Coleman wrote for Politico about the dangers of awarding a FEMA contract to a single vendor:

In the weeks after Hurricane Maria left much of Puerto Rico without electricity in the worst power outage in U.S. history, island officials made a hasty decision to award a $300 million contract to Montana-based Whitefish Energy Holdings, a company with only two full-time employees. The swift backlash over the contract led to calls for an investigation and Puerto Rico eventually revoked the deal—but not before precious time was wasted as millions of Puerto Ricans languished without power.

Now, just a few weeks after the Whitefish debacle, a different government agency is making a similar mistake. Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it will be unable to meet the needs of the Puerto Rican rebuild, and asked for public comment on a proposal to hire a single vendor to handle all of the shipping, transportation, logistics, and delivery of disaster relief aid to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for the next 12 months. The contract could be worth more than $100 million and will have an immense impact on the speed of the island’s recovery. FEMA released the notice the afternoon before Thanksgiving—and gave the public just six days to comment on it.

Behind this rushed and opaque process is an idea just as flawed: hiring a single vendor to take on such a monolithic task. The idea could prove disastrous because one company rarely possesses all the skills necessary to complete every aspect of the rebuild, especially the cultural and contextual understanding to get locals what they need. It also represents a missed opportunity to use the rebuilding process to help the Puerto Rican economy. In the post-disaster rebuild, the federal government has a rare opportunity to do things differently, and to turn the recovery into an economic opportunity in itself, by bringing in a diverse group of Puerto Rican companies to do the work.

Authors:

Emma Coleman is a Millennial Public Policy Fellow in New America’s Public Interest Technology program. She received a BA from Stanford University in international relations and comparative studies in race and ethnicity.

Vivian Graubard is the director of strategy for Public Interest Technology at New America. Prior to joining New America, Graubard worked at the White House under President Obama where she was a founding member of the United States Digital Service and also served as a senior advisor and chief of staff to the United States Chief Technology Officer.