A contractor facing acrid backlash over a scathing report detailing the delivery of just 50,000 of a promised 30 million self-heating meals to desperate Puerto Ricans recovering from Hurricane Maria has now come forward to defend her actions after FEMA had no choice but to terminate the contract “due to late delivery” — but Tiffany Brown’s response smacks of shirking responsibility for blatant failures, rather than humble mea culpa.
“I’ve had challenges in that area,” Brown, the sole operator and employee of Tribute Contracting in Atlanta, told CBS News of the bungled deal, “particularly because I’m so young and being a woman in the food industry world.”
One look at the contractual obligation versus what actually made it to hungry, struggling Puerto Ricans, however, speaks far more to a lack of business acumen — or even gross incompetence — rather than defeating circumstances beyond Brown’s control.
In fact, as the New York Times disclosed, Brown and Tribute Contracting LLC had no prior experience managing large-scale disasters — a mitigating detail apparently insufficient to cause the Federal Emergency Management Agency to question whether or not the business could handle the colossal task of delivering millions of meals rapidly to Maria victims — landing the $156 million contract for 30 million ready-to-eat meals at $5.10 each, to be delivered by October 23, in spite of that and other conspicuous matters.
According to the Times, Brown, who indeed had experience navigating labyrinthian government bureaucracy, approached an Atlanta wedding caterer with an eleven-member staff to “freeze-dry wild mushrooms and rice, chicken and rice, and vegetable soup. She found a nonprofit in Texas that had shipped food aid overseas and domestically, including to a Houston food bank after Hurricane Harvey.
“By the time 18.5 million meals were due, Tribute had delivered only 50,000. And FEMA inspectors discovered a problem: The food had been packaged separately from the pouches used to heat them. FEMA’s solicitation required ‘self-heating meals.’”
Stunned FEMA official in charge of contracting, Carolyn Ward, penned an email to Brown dated October 19 — which she shared with the Times — admonishing in no uncertain terms,
“Do not ship another meal. Your contract is terminated. This is a logistical nightmare.”
According to CBS, FEMA itself had vetted Brown’s company and proceeded to award the massive contract — despite the Atlanta businesswoman having “had five previous government contracts terminated for ‘not delivering required food’ and her ‘inability to ship products’ — and no experience in dealing with large-scale disasters.”
Further, “One government agency put out a notice saying her company could not work for it again. But that warning did not apply to FEMA.”
It isn’t as if the disaster-management agency boasts an incontrovertible record of its own — FEMA doled out many millions in contracts in the wake of Maria to entities failing in part or whole to live up to the terms of awarded contracts.
“In November,” reports the Times, for example, “The Associated Press found that after Hurricane Maria, FEMA awarded more than $30 million in contracts for emergency tarps and plastic sheeting to a company that never delivered the needed supplies.”
Further, the agency insists — without providing evidence of its claims — no distribution of food or water was delayed due to the failure of Tribute to complete its contract, as multiple other businesses and charities took up the slack.
Indeed private entities and activist and human rights groups have filled in where the United States government has repeatedly botched handling of the catastrophe — without the assistance of taxpayer-funded state contracts.
But Puerto Ricans have yet to have power fully restored to the island, among myriad other major concerns, and — even though Governor Ricardo Rosselló requested fully $94.4 billion from Congress — disaster aid to the territory from its colonial-holdover ruler totals just $17 billion, reports the Miami Herald, less than one-fifth of the governor’s assessment of need.
So dire is the situation, residents in some areas — such as southern mountain town of Coamo — have taken matters into their own hands, reconstructing the power grid themselves, lest the longest-running power outage in U.S. history leave Puerto Ricans fumbling in sweaty darkness to survive any longer.
It seems they had no other option — Rosselló implored Washington to grant $17 billion to fix the power grid — an array servicing around 3.5 million people — but received just $2 billion to be allotted for that purpose.
In striking contrast, Florida’s citrus industry — employing around 45,000 people when Maria’s predecessor, Hurricane Irma, devastated the state’s crops — received $300 million more than has been designated for Puerto Rico’s power grid.
“In Puerto Rico we still have 27 percent of the population without electricity,” Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration executive director Carlos Mercader asserted to the Miami Herald. “Whenever you have a big number of U.S. citizens without electricity for 130 days the issue cannot be forgotten.”
But Puerto Rico seemingly has been forgotten by the very government officials and agencies tasked with overseeing the island’s millions of United States citizens’ safety, security, and well-being — perhaps not shocking, given its limited representation in governance and continued anachronistic status as a territory.
“Let’s put it this way,” Mercader added, “we cannot miss the fact that obviously we lack representation in Congress.”
Arguably more telling than the laughable response from Washington to Puerto Rico’s calamity is the generally flippant attitude officials, contractors, and others seem to have trotted out in response — as if many wish the victims languishing without power, food, or water would simply stop griping about the unpreventable misfortune and go away.
To wit, Brown lamented to CBS, “My biggest mistake was not asking for more help.”
Yet, appallingly — considering some 29,950,000 meals never found needy mouths — the Atlanta business owner has filed an appeal with FEMA, seeking $70 million.