The discovery of stranded water bottles intended for recovery effort for the citizens of Puerto Rico signals a significant gap in coordination between disaster relief agencies. The incident occurring just before Hurricane Florence’s anticipated arrival on the southeastern coasts of the United States raises the question of accountability when relief resources are mismanaged on such a large scale. Intermediary help and better communication could have prevented numerous deaths and the unnecessary waste of precious relief supplies.
Purpose, Collaboration, and Communication
FEMA’s primary purpose is to help victims of natural disasters recover by providing assistance with housing repair, food, medical assistance, and transportation to them through Disaster Recovery Centers. Its secondary purpose is to collaborate with other government agencies and non-profit organizations in the disaster response effort. Effective communication and identification of resources are paramount in the response process. Neither of these actions was present between FEMA and local Puerto Rican government officials when the request and delivery of the water bottles were made. The breakdown in the response effort is attributed to the lackluster response to the hurricane victims. Simple verification of resource type and quality could have prevented the colossal waste of the water bottles.
The problem, according to Puerto Rico’s General Services Administration, was not the lack of help but bad water and timing. The excess bottles were delivered by FEMA and 700 pallets of water were distributed but people complained of the taste and smell of the water. The Puerto Rico government decided to discontinue use of the water, leaving the surplus in the heat and rendering the rest of the water bottles useless while hurricane victims were forced to collect mountain spring water for cooking, risking contraction of water-borne illnesses. The break-down of distribution evolved from conflict over responsibility and control of the federal property where the water was delivered. GSA contends that FEMA mishandled the delivery and storage of the water supplies. Disaster relief, management of delivery, and ensuring water quality and distribution is the responsibility of the current owner of the property. Management disputes should not be resolved at the expense of natural disaster victims. These issues should have been resolved long before the first shipment of water was delivered.
Federal Property and Administration Services
The policy regarding real property is to develop effective stewardship of federal property. The US Government Services Policy over interagency collaboration is responsible for guidance and tracking of federal property performance as well as compliance with executive orders. The water was delivered was the property of FEMA and not the government of Puerto Rico. According to the Federal Property and Administration Services Policy, FEMA was responsible for tracking the water shipment after it was delivered to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and therefore has some authority to manage FEMA property and distribution of Federal Assets. The conflict shifts to the purpose of the water delivery.
Lackluster Preparation and Response
A contributing factor to FEMA’s lackluster response and management was inadequate staffing and interagency connectivity. The lack of a working communication network and trained staff hindered response decisions and concise identification and tracking of emergency supplies when they arrived in Puerto Rico. Many shipments were simply labeled as emergency supplies with no further indication of what was received. The shipments had to be unpacked in order to identify the contents. FEMA’S internal investigation revealed inadequate planning for the hurricane season along with mismanagement of funds.
Alternate Stockpile Distribution
When FEMA declared the water as excess inventory, they should have reported the stockpile to the Federal Excess Personal Property Utilization Program, which can assist agencies with transferring excess inventory of resource to non-profit organizations in need of the resources. Interestingly, the program is managed by the same agency responsible for tracking the distribution of FEMA response resources. It is also the agency that granted the shipment of the surplus water bottles. Unfortunately, too much time passed between the time the water was delivered and when the water was declared as excess inventory – another break in communication and policy implementation of both FEMA and Government Services Administration.
The State Agency for Surplus Property has regulations and criteria that States must meet before surplus property is granted to public agencies. Utilization officers screen the surplus system to ensure organizations meet the requirements to receive surplus property. Puerto Rico’s GSA does not state if a utilization officer knew about the request for the water. Adding extra utilization officers can help detect unauthorized or unnecessary surplus orders and either cancel them or divert them to non-profit organizations who will promptly use the resources instead of wasting time determining property ownership or distribution responsibility.
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