FEMA mishandled contracts for California wildfire victims, audit says

A look at widespread fire devastation in Santa Rosa

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore surveys devastation of the Santa Rosa fires in his district on Oct. 14, 2017. "This just looks like a nuclear blast."
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Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore surveys devastation of the Santa Rosa fires in his district on Oct. 14, 2017. "This just looks like a nuclear blast."

The federal government continues to mishandle contracts with private companies during disasters such as California’s wildfires, according to a report published Thursday by the Government Accountability Office.

The advance contracts are meant to ensure needed goods and services are in place when disasters strike, such as construction supplies and services, tarps, food, water, blankets, generators, cleaning and hygiene supplies, housing and lodging assistance and communication support.

The report found the mishandling created confusion about how to best use the contracts in a way that’s “cost-effective and practical to facilitate a faster response when providing goods and services to survivors.” GAO also found the federal government was sometimes paying more for certain goods and services than what was laid out in the contracts.

FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent $667 million on advance contracts during California wildfires in 2017. Billions are spent on advance contracts for hurricanes, according to the report.

But those goods and services critical to survivors are limited due to “an outdated strategy and unclear guidance on how contracting officers should use advance contracts during a disaster,” according to the report. FEMA’s list of advance contracts in place is also incomplete and inconsistent, the GAO found, with huge differences between a FEMA list and internal training documents published a month apart.

“Our analysis found that 58 advance contracts identified on the June 2018 advance contract list were not included in the May 2018 biannual training documentation, including contracts for telecommunications services, generators, and manufactured housing units,” the report says. “Further, 26 of the contracts included in the May training documentation were not included on the June advance contract list, including contracts for foreign language interpretation services, hygiene items, and short-shelf life meals.”

It’s not the first time the GAO pointed out this problem. It found the same issues in May 2006, following a look at how the advance contracts were used in Hurricane Katrina, and reiterated the need for a clear strategy in a September 2015 report.

One example in the current report involved contracts on debris removal in the 2017 California wildfires. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state and local officials in California had different understandings of the process — such as what structures would be removed from private property and acceptable soil contamination levels. Army Corps of Engineers officials said they were relying on FEMA to communicate those expectations to state and local officials, but FEMA regional contracting officials said they had no direct coordination with California officials.

The GAO recommended FEMA take nine internal steps to fix the problem, centered around mandating a clear strategy on using advance contracts in a clearly communicated, quick and cost-effective manner.

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.