In a rare show of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans alike ganged up on FEMA and its contractor Wednesday for how they have handled the response to August’s historic floods in the Baton Rouge area.
Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said FEMA spent $150,000 per trailer on a supposedly new and improved kind of manufactured housing unit when the same kind could have been purchased and installed in the Baton Rouge area for $50,000 or less.
“Go online for goodness sakes and you could save the taxpayers literally millions of dollars,” an exasperated Chaffetz said.
The acting director of FEMA, Robert Fenton Jr., said the agency is trying its best to try to deal with one of the worst flooding disasters in American history.
“In responding to disasters, we can be precise, cost-effective or fast, but we can’t be all three,” Fenton said.
But the committee’s worst criticism was directed at CB&I, the company managing the manufactured housing unit program for FEMA. CB&I is the multi-national that bought out Baton Rouge-based Shaw Group in 2013 after the Shaw Group had established itself as government’s go-to management company for responding to hurricanes and other major storms.
David Boone, CB&I Federal Services president, appeared before the House committee Wednesday and tried to say they had done exceptional work.
“We have received only positive comments and glowing accolades from FEMA about our performance under this task,” he said.
But the committee members said they had gathered emails that showed otherwise, including one sent by FEMA’s Region VI director to CB&I’s project manager in September. Rep. Stacey Plaskett, D-Virgin Islands, read from it at the hearing.
“Today I am scrubbing my emails and I have seen at least 20 problems with your (subcontractors),” Plaskett quoted from the email. “Please drop the hammer on these guys because their performance does not look good on you and the reputation you and your team have established.”
Committee members cited other FEMA emails that said CB&I got more than 1,900 maintenance calls in December and only responded to 190 of them.
Members of the committee related stories of sinks collapsing, sprinklers dropping from the ceiling and toilets overflowing in some of the units, which were touted as major improvements from the travel trailers FEMA had been using after hurricanes.
And then there was the blind Air Force veteran Everett Wilson of Baton Rouge, who died at 84 in his FEMA trailer in October when the thermostat allegedly malfunctioned and temperatures climbed to 110 degrees.
“He was baked to death in a FEMA trailer,” Chaffetz said, citing reporting by our partners at The Advocate.
Plaskett said emails indicated the company had received dozens of calls about malfunctioning thermostats in the weeks leading up to Wilson’s death, including one for the unit in Wilson’s trailer.
“We didn’t know about the thermostats until after his passing,” said Boone, who insisted that he had not seen some of the damning emails his own company had provided to the committee. He twice declined when Plaskett offered him the chance to take back his claims that FEMA had “only positive comments and glowing accolades” for CB&I’s performance.
That prompted the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., to cut in during Plaskett’s questioning and direct angry comments at Boone, a retired Navy admiral.
“If I was running your company and I had these kinds of problems and something did not flow up to me, the very things that could destroy my business? There’s something wrong with the business. There’s something wrong with the management… and it might be you.”
CB&I is one of several companies competing for an even larger state contract to run its $1.2 billion permanent housing recovery effort, which received money from Congress in September, but has yet to get underway. The state has had difficulty selecting a contractor amid a nepotism controversy involving a different firm – not CB&I.