In March 2019, Cyclone Idai hit the east coast of Africa. It was an unprecedented storm that devastated parts of southern Africa. Photos from Refugees International Senior Advocate for Women and Girls Devon Cone show the region recovering.
Cyclones Idai and Kenneth devastated Mozambique and Zimbabwe in March and April 2019. The cyclones demonstrate an ugly truth: climate change will affect Africa more severely than any other continent. That the two cyclones occurred at that time of year, with this severity, and in these locations was remarkable. As humanitarians continue to respond to the needs of storm survivors, including a looming food crisis affecting up to a third of the population in Zimbabwe, the region must also prepare for similar storms in the future.
Drought affects 80 percent of Afghanistan’s territory. The government has drawn direct ties between the climate and the country’s economy, food security, and overall stability, so people displaced by climate change-related emergencies could slow Afghanistan’s growth and undermine efforts to reach a successful peace plan.
Some 164 countries signed on to a non-binding Global Compact for Migration this week, enshrining some commonly accepted migration policies that are likely to come in handy as ever greater numbers of people leave their home countries behind in search of a better life.
“What we ultimately got out of the text is a floor, not a ceiling.”
Alice Thomas is a program manager for Refugees International.
“It’s the first time you have in one document a 360-degree view of migration and a set of best practices for states working collaboratively to achieve safer, regular, orderly migration.”
Some of the compact’s 23 goals include ending “migration detention unless as a last resort,” eliminating discrimination against migrants and stopping the “allocation of public funding or material support to media outlets that systematically promote intolerance.”
While the compact is clearly and purposefully non-binding, the U.S. boycotted it anyway, and perhaps that’s no surprise. The U.S. has been widely criticized for detaining migrants (even going as far as to separate migrant children from their parents) and President Trump himself has repeatedly turned public sentiment against migrants, even peddling the debunked theory that they pose health risks to the U.S.
Non-binding or not, Thomas hopes one of the compact’s goals to collect more data on migration will ultimately help countries with good migration policy to stand out from the pack.
“To say that best practices are going to drive you to do something that’s going to call you out in some fashion – well yeah, maybe it’s going to mean that you’re not following the best practices for migration. But the whole idea that the international community needs to work together to try to deal with this phenomena.”
That cooperation is urgently needed. According to the U.N., the number of international migrants has increased from around 100 million people 30 years ago to more than 250 million now, and that trend shows little signs of stopping.
The Global Compact for Migration will only be effective if countries move forward with its implementation. However, what is important is that the compact’s 23 objectives embody a comprehensive set of best practices for managing migration in a safe, orderly manner which requires the cooperation of countries of origin, transit and destination.
Over 180 countries are endorsing what is known as the Global Compact for Migration. The text of this non-binding agreement was finalized over the summer, and countries are meeting in Marrakech, Morocco on December 10th and 11th to formally launch the Compact.
There is a great deal of misinformation being spread, mostly by right wing governments in Europe in the US, about what this agreement entails.
This agreement is not a treaty. Rather, it is an agreed set of principles and creates a kind of platform for multilateral and bilateral cooperation around issues of international migration.
On the line to explain the Global Compact for Migration, better known around the UN as the “GCM” is Alice Thomas of Refugees International. I caught up with Alice Thomas from Marrakech where she was participating in civil society forums around the Compact. We discuss both the content of the Compact and its potential impact on destination countries, origin countries and migrants themselves. We also discuss the impact of the non-participation of a few countries in this compact, including the United States and some countries in Europe.
If you have 20 minutes and want to a primer on the Global Compact For Migration, have a listen –>
The nations that are attending the Inter-governmental Conference on Migration in Morocco and the UN climate change negotiations in Poland clearly understand what the current U.S. administration does not (or doesn’t want to): Meeting the challenges of international migration and climate change is not a zero-sum game. Refusing to join cooperative efforts to find joint solutions does not make your own problems better, but worse.
Refugees International is deeply alarmed by the findings of a new scientific report concluding that – absent immediate and ambitious action by governments – climate change will have severe and irreversible real life impacts on hundreds of millions of people, especially those living in the poorest regions of the globe.
In the face of insufficient assistance from federal and Puerto Rican authorities in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, ordinary people have stepped up to become strong community leaders—ultimately strengthening community resilience and self-reliance. Yet they are largely being left out of recovery plans.
A month after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan stepped off a helicopter in the town of Ceiba with a mission: Get relief supplies to people in need.
He and FEMA's regional administrator, Thomas Von Essen, told the town's mayor and other mayors from across the island that generators, plastic roofs and tarps would be there within days.
"There are 50,000 more blue tarps coming in over the next week," Buchanan said. "So these will all get pushed to all the mayors."
Von Essen added that FEMA had as many as 500 generators on the island before the storm and would soon distribute them.
But today, it's clear none of those promises were kept, and FEMA and the federal government failed on multiple fronts to help the devastated island recover.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan (left) talks to a U.S. Army helicopter crew member in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, after a supply delivery mission for residents affected by Hurricane Maria, Oct. 23, 2017.
Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images
NPR and the PBS series Frontline examined hundreds of pages of internal documents and emails. Rather than a well-orchestrated effort, they paint a picture of a relief agency in chaos, struggling with key contracts, basic supplies and even its own workforce.
Internal briefing documents show FEMA never had 500 generators on the island before the storm — it had 25. Its plastic roof program was out of plastic, and the most tarps FEMA ever produced was 125,000 — months after people needed them.
Hours after NPR and FRONTLINE published these findings, Democratic lawmakers from the House and Senate introduced a bill to create an independent commission to investigate the "flawed" federal response in Puerto Rico. They noted the "botched FEMA contracts" in calling for the commission. The legislation also calls for an examination of the island's death toll, and whether Puerto Rico was treated differently than Texas and Florida were after hurricanes last year, as NPR and FRONTLINE found.
"It is heartbreaking to learn that the more we closely examine [Hurricane Maria's] aftermath, the clearer we see the federal government failed the people of Puerto Rico," said U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., in announcing the legislation, which was written by U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y.
FEMA's federal coordinating officer for Maria, Michael Byrne, said blame for any failures rests with the storm, not with federal responders contending with taxed resources and complicated geography.
"If there's a villain here, it's the 190 mph winds and the 50 inches of rain," Byrne said. "That's the villain. That's what did the damage to the people. We've done nothing but try to remedy that."
Still, as NPR and Frontline traveled the island in the months after the storm, it was clear many of the problems were man-made.
In Luquillo, Mayor Jesus Rodriguez said he had been waiting more than two months for FEMA to provide just seven generators that would power the town's water pumps. He said he couldn't understand what could hold up such a critical request in a town that had no running water.
"Water is life," he said, frustrated.
In Piñones, William Torruella, a pastor, and his congregation spent weeks gathering supplies on their own to deliver to nearby towns. He said when FEMA arrived in Morovis, two months after the storm, he asked what had taken so long. Officials told him the roads to the town had been closed.
"They were not closed," Torruella said, shaking his head. "I've been going there. The excuses do not explain what's happening."
Even an international disaster worker checking on survivors in Yabucoa in January was confused by the delays.
"We were pretty surprised to see how slow the response was [in Puerto Rico]," said Alice Thomas, a program manager with Refugees International, who has been to more than a dozen disasters. "Compared especially to major emergencies I've seen in foreign countries," she said. "And we couldn't get over particularly how bad the shelter response was."
The seemingly simple process of distributing tarps to storm victims illustrates the problem. Thomas said storm victims need tarps in the first week or two if they hope to save their homes.
"Why they couldn't get tarps, I do not know," she said, adding that federal officials working on the ground called the tarp delays a "mystery."
When asked what accounted for the delays, FEMA's Byrne said it was difficult to get supplies to Puerto Rico because it's an island.
"We had problems getting everything," he said. "When you have to ship it, you have to add seven days or sometimes longer to everything that you want to bring in. It's definitely a challenge."
Yet 20 years ago, after Hurricane Georges hit the island, there weren't reports of these logistical problems.
Contractors apply a FEMA tarp to a home in Morovis on Dec. 20, 2017, three months after it was damaged by Hurricane Maria. The day Maria hit, FEMA had fewer than 12,000 tarps on the island, far below what was needed.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
And the agency's own records reflect a different picture.
According to planning and briefing documents, the agency did not pre-position enough supplies on the island before the storm, as federal rules require. The day Maria hit, agency records show, FEMA had fewer than 12,000 tarps on the island. Then, the agency failed to acquire more.
First, records show, FEMA hired a company that was just two months old. It didn't provide a single tarp. Then FEMA chose a company whose last contract had been for $4,000 worth of kitchen utensils for a prison. It didn't produce a single tarp either.
Finally, FEMA turned to a third company, called Master Group. Its specialty, according to its website, is importing hookah tobacco. It produced some tarps, but when employees examined them in a warehouse in January, FEMA says, the tarps failed a quality-control inspection.
Import records examined by NPR and Frontline show the company brought the tarps in from China, which violates federal contracting rules. After NPR and Frontline questioned FEMA about this, the agency suspended the company.
FEMA was also struggling with contracts to deliver food, diesel fuel and other supplies.
Byrne said these were just a few troubled contracts out of more than 2,000 that did not have problems.
"We had a couple of ones that didn't work out well and we dealt with it," Byrne said. "I continue [to] focus on getting it solved."
Behind the scenes, though, some federal workers were discouraged. In one email, a top Army Corps official complained to FEMA managers, "We cannot survive any longer with any delay of materials," the engineer wrote. "I cannot keep saying we are trying. ... I need solutions."
A car battery connected to an inverter and a generator provides power for a street party on a block without electricity on Dec. 24, 2017.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
The Army Corps' plastic roof program, known as blue roofs, provides stronger roof sheeting tied down to houses. Without tarps, it became even more critical.
But FEMA didn't have enough plastic sheeting on the island. In the first month after Hurricane Irma in Florida, records show, the Army Corps put up 4,500 blue roofs. In Puerto Rico, just 439.
"It goes back to how much material do you have?" said Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, who oversees the Army Corps. "Almost all the warehouses were empty. So when we hit, the amount of available supplies, either generators, blue roof material, whatever it might be, were just not there ... that could have gotten us more of a jump-start."
When it came to getting the lights on, federal officials chose a contractor named Fluor — a company with global experience building power generation plants but little experience rebuilding the grids that distribute power to communities. Government sources said they went with Fluor because it was a company they trusted, but they also described weeks of bureaucratic delays as the company got up to speed.
But that wasn't all that was causing FEMA headaches. FEMA was struggling with its own staff. One internal staffing document reveals that more than a quarter of the staff FEMA hired to provide people assistance on the island was "untrained" and another quarter was "unqualified."
Byrne bristles at the suggestion that FEMA didn't help people.
"I think we've done a lot of support," he said. "How can you look at the fact that we gave a billion dollars in assistance out, that we've given out 62 million liters of water, 52 million meals to the people. How can you categorize that as not providing assistance? I find that that doesn't connect."
Oscar Carrión taught himself how to string up electrical wire and restored power to thousands in his town.
Still, he said FEMA will learn from its mistakes. There were "a number of places where we weren't perfect," he said. "I'll accept that. I'm going to keep working to get better."
Four months after the storm, in a small neighborhood near San Juan called Villa Hugo, local resident Oscar Carrión wasn't waiting for help.
He had taken it upon himself to turn the lights on and had already restored power to 3,000 neighbors.
"I'm afraid of heights and of the electrical current," he said in Spanish. "The first time I got up there, I was trembling all over. I still tremble."
Carrión owns a grocery and has four kids. He has no experience working on power poles and doesn't own any safety equipment. He and his neighbors pooled together $2,500 to buy an old rusted bucket truck.
On this day, the neighbors unwound wire along the street and Carrión worked pole to pole.
"I guess I am taking a risk," he said, "but it's difficult to live in the dark. We were tired of hearing that they can't get to us. So we've decided to move forward on our own."
As he got back into the truck, he paused for a minute and said, "If we don't do it, nobody will do it for us."
Refugees International is calling on the United Nations to address climate change-related human mobility in the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, and include protections for persons moving in the context of climate change-related adverse effects, including both sudden- and slow-onset hazards.
One year ago today, the Trump administration made its ill-advised decision to withdraw the United States from the historic Paris Climate Accord. The decision effectively sidelined the United States on this critical issue, moving the country from a position of international leadership. One year later, the world is moving forward to tackle the climate crisis and related displacement issues.
Puerto Rico’s death toll in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is estimated to be almost 5,000, according to a Harvard study published Tuesday. Data from this large-scale survey also revealed some sobering information about what life has been like for those trying to manage their health on the island in the wake of the storm.
The study, which surveyed 3,299 randomly chosen households in Puerto Rico over three weeks, found that from Sept. 20 to Dec. 31, 2017, at least 4,645 people died in connection to the storm. The government’s death toll is 64.
Dr. Satchit Balsari, one of the researchers for the study, explained the importance of having an accurate death count not only because of its financial ramifications but also because it gives families a sense of closure. “It’s important to acknowledge what happened and why they lost their family members,” he told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday.
Researchers calculated this new alarmingly high death toll and gathered facts about causes of death, displacement and infrastructure loss in the months after the storm. The information paints a distressing picture of the sort of challenges that millions of Puerto Ricans faced after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in September of last year.
The study’s numbers aligned with previous media reports and analyses that the death toll was likely in the thousands. The researchers’ findings are dismaying but, unfortunately, are surprising only in their magnitude.
The aftermath of the storm was deadlier than its landfall
The survey found that the significant increase in deaths in the months after Hurricane Maria was mainly a result of interruption of medical care, with about one-third of households reporting such issues — including accessing medications (14.4 percent), being unable to use respiratory equipment because of a lack of electricity (9.5 percent), having no open medical facilities nearby (8.6 percent) or having no doctors at medical facilities (6.1 percent).
Nearly 9 percent of households in remote areas said they were unable to reach 911 services by phone.
“I think people gravitate towards how many people were killed immediately from drowning or falling debris,” he said. “But the reality is, the much, much bigger problem is the long-term inability to get to medical care or the inability to get the medical devices or medication that people need to survive — so, people who are dependent on electrical-powered medical devices like ventilators or who need their medication every single day so their diabetes or high blood pressure doesn’t get out of control.”
The average household went over 2 months without power and water
After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s decades-old power grid was devastated, leaving millions of residents in the dark. For months, access to drinking water and plumbing was compromised by a lack of electricity ― conditions that prompted health concerns over bacterial disease outbreaks, among other fears.
A lack of power can be dangerous for people with chronic conditions who rely on electrically powered medical devices or must have a functioning refrigerator to store medicines such as insulin.
And the Harvard study found that, on average, households went 84 days without electricity and 68 days without water. Many respondents were still without power at the time the survey was conducted, from Jan. 17 to Feb. 24 this year.
Older Puerto Ricans stayed behind while young adults left their homes
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, a historic number of Puerto Ricans have migrated to the mainland to escape deteriorating economic and day-to-day conditions on the island. The Harvard study found that 2.8 percent of sampled households’ residents were reported to no longer live there. The majority moved elsewhere on the island, and 41 percent went to the mainland.
The median age of those who left their households and did not return or were missing was 25. Those who stayed in the household or died had a median age of 50.
Alice Thomas, a climate displacement program manager for Refugees International, said the organization witnessed these patterns while visiting the island four months and six months after the hurricane hit.
“It was very obvious from what we saw on the ground that the people who were being left behind were mainly the elderly,” she said. “We visited a number of households in different parts of the island, both remote and close to San Juan, where it was essentially older people living in a house that didn’t have electricity [or] potable water.”
Older people are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions, which often require regular management and may limit their mobility and ability to migrate or travel long distances for treatment.
“There were people who had chronic illnesses — including Alzheimer’s, hypertension, high blood pressure, Parkinson’s ― and they were living traumatized by the storm itself,” Thomas added.
She said her group’s workers met many people who were poor and did not have health insurance to help pay for what few resources were available.
People gravitate towards how many people were killed immediately from drowning or falling debris. But the reality is the much, much bigger problem is the long-term inability to get to medical care.” Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University
The study likely included a dramatic undercount of suicides
As it stands, data from the study included only one suicide. The number linked to Hurricane Maria is likely much higher, since the government’s count includes at least four suicides and separate figures from the government have shown a spike in suicides in the aftermath of the storm.
Balsari said the team on the ground consisted entirely of psychology students who had been working on mental health outreach in these communities for a while.
“They did find that the prolonged suffering, interruption in their utility services for several months and the interruption in medical care was taking a toll on a higher burden of mental health morbidity,” he said.
Dr. Rafael Irizarry, another researcher in the study, chimed in to say he suspected that if the study’s sample size had been larger, they would have seen more suicides.
The death toll estimate is conservative and likely much higher
Researchers said their estimate of additional deaths from Maria is probably an undercount. “The death rate appears to be constant after September all the way up to December,” Irizarry said in the conference call. “There’s no reason for us to believe that all of a sudden that trailed down after January.”
Eight months after the storm, many Puerto Ricans are still without power or reliable access to health care ― a deadly combination for those who remain on the island, particularly in the face of the 2018 hurricane season, which begins Friday.
“This is not the end of the story,” Redlener said. “I think there’s every reason to worry that the numbers will climb significantly higher because there are still people without access to the health care they need.”
This piece originally appeared here
For 25 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has installed temporary plastic roofs on storm victims’ homes after disasters, part of a key emergency response program called “Operation: Blue Roof.”
But in the wake of the most destructive storm season on record, that system broke down. After Hurricane Maria, the blue roof program was riddled with problems, an investigation by FRONTLINE and NPR found, causing delays that left tens of thousands of Puerto Rican homes vulnerable to the elements for months. While the Army Corps provided thousands of blue roofs in the immediate aftermath of storms like Irma and Katrina, in the first 30 days after Maria, it finished just 439 — less than 1 percent of the total needed. Even three months after the storm, only half of the number of blue roofs needed were up in Puerto Rico.
Internal government documents and interviews with officials in the Army Corps, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, disaster experts and contractors in Puerto Rico illustrate that behind the slow pace of the Puerto Rico program were two key issues: shortages of essential supplies and bureaucratic problems with contracting. Together, these lapses reveal a fundamental lack of preparation for an event the size and scope of Hurricane Maria, according to disaster experts who spoke to FRONTLINE and NPR for the documentary Blackout in Puerto Rico.
“Homes that were salvageable are ruined now. They’re beyond repair,” said Alice Thomas, a disaster response expert with Refugees International, which looked into the delays in temporary shelter programs in Puerto Rico. “It’s an emergency. You need a roof over your head, and you need it now.”
Slower that Katrina
By almost any measure, Hurricane Maria was an unprecedented storm. But the Army Corps had vast experience installing temporary roofs after other devastating disasters, where it had met the demands for blue roofs at a far faster clip.
After Hurricane Katrina – the Corps’ largest blue roof mission ever – the agency was able to install 107,344 in 100 days. After Maria, it installed just 30,000 blue roofs in the first 100 days, half of what was needed.
The Corps had even performed better in Puerto Rico. After the island’s last major hurricane, Georges, in 1998, the Corps and its 44 contractors completed approximately 30,000 roofs within 37 days of the storm.
Even during the 2017 storm season, the Army Corps program in Florida after Irma was 10 times faster in the first 30 days, where it installed more than 4,500 blue roofs.
Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, head of the Army Corps, told FRONTLINE and NPR that the program, which the Corps runs on behalf of FEMA, went as fast as it could given the historic challenges that existed after Maria, but acknowledged that the agency should move faster and rethink it’s planning.
“There’s always going to be some degree of a delay. The question is, how can we speed it up, to have quicker roofs and more roofs put into the first couple months?” Semonite said. “We want to be faster … But there’s some mechanics of a storm. Mother Nature gets a vote here. In Puerto Rico, Mother Nature got a big, big vote.”
Lack of Supplies
However, the initial delays after Maria weren’t caused solely by the storm, but also from a lack of supplies.
It would take two weeks from the day Maria hit before a single blue roof was completed in Puerto Rico. That’s because, according to internal FEMA documents, when Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, FEMA had none of the sturdy tarp material it needed on the island.
“Almost all the warehouses were empty. So when we hit, the amount of available supplies … blue roof material, whatever it might be, were just not there to be able to respond in an effort that would have probably been something that could have got us more of a jump start,” Semonite said.
He added that the sheeting material in Puerto Rico had just been moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma, which hit the archipelago hard. As a result, documents show, the first shipment of plastic sheeting, 1,200 rolls, didn’t arrive in Puerto Rico until Oct. 3.
Even then, there were further delays. A week after sheeting first arrived on the island, FEMA awarded a $9.2 million contract for additional plastic sheeting to a Florida-based company called Bronze Star, which had no disaster experience and had only formed that August. A month later, FEMA cancelled the contract after the company failed to deliver any sheeting, forcing the agency to scramble in search of a new supplier.
A Slow Ramp Up
As sheeting trickled in, the Corps came up against new hurdles with the firm it had contracted with to help build the roofs themselves.
Before Maria, it had lined up an advance contract with a disaster recovery firm called Ceres Environmental Services Inc. As part of its contract, the Minnesota-based company was required to be ready to deploy to Puerto Rico to install blue roofs in the event of a disaster. These kinds of contracts were a key requirement of the 2006 Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which attempted to address the failures of coordination and preparation that led to the bungled federal response after Katrina.
Ceres had years of experience with blue roofs, including in Puerto Rico, where it was one of the contractors on the ground after Hurricane Georges in 1998. But after Maria, federal data show that Ceres did not meet its initial contract requirements.
Ceres began installing blue roofs in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, and according to contracting documents, was given 10 days to ramp up to a minimum of 200 blue roof installations a day. By Oct. 13, Ceres was supposed to put up at least 120 roofs a day. That day it only managed 90, leading the Army Corps to warn Ceres it would face penalties if it did not improve its performance. The company submitted a plan to fix its installation rate.
Ceres officials declined to be interviewed, but in a response to written questions said that, “despite the destruction to roofs and the infrastructure affecting the speed of the recovery, Ceres still met or exceeded its contract requirements.” The Army Corps never sought damages for its initial failure to meet the installation rate.
Ceres said the sheer devastation of the storm made travel in the immediate aftermath difficult. It also said that part of the early challenges were due to a change in the scope of work for the blue roof program in Puerto Rico. In most storms, severely damaged homes cannot have a blue roof. But because Maria was so destructive, FEMA changed the rules to include severely damaged properties. The result, Ceres wrote, was that “these severely damaged roofs required up to four times the crew hours to complete.”
But several former workers for Ceres said delays were also exacerbated by the company’s struggles to retain workers hired by local subcontractors in Puerto Rico.
One of those former subcontractors, Ponce-based Venegas Construction, worked for Ceres for about a week before quitting. Emilio R. Venegas, vice president of the firm, said Ceres provided limited training and paid subcontractors a rate that barely covered costs.
Ceres Environmental disputed Venegas’ characterization of its training program, saying its subcontractors were, “supported by our Management Team with experience from other Corps blue roof contracts.” It added that, “Ceres contractors were paid commensurate with the rates received by Ceres to install the roofs.”
By Oct. 19, Ceres was producing the required 200 roofs a day, but even at the pace spelled out in its contract, it would take nearly a year for them to finish the roughly 60,000 roofs needed on Puerto Rico. Things were improving, but not fast enough to meet demand. The program needed more workers.
Semonite said the Army Corps is deciding whether to make changes to its contracting practices going forward.
“We’re looking at this really hard to say, ‘Is there a way we can incentivize our contractor in the next storm?’” he said. “We work for FEMA, so this is a partnership … We’re in those dialogues right now, so if a contractor hits the ground, how can we get the curve of implementation much, much quicker?”
FEMA’s top official in Puerto Rico, Mike Byrne, acknowledged in an interview with FRONTLINE and NPR that there had been “challenges” with the program and said the agency will evaluate its performance after the recovery.
“We had issues with some of the labor that they were doing,” Byrne said. “We had issues about the challenge of getting materials into some of these remote areas. All of this made it a challenge. But again, the important thing to realize is we were doing, and we were executing to the maximum that we were capable in terms of the resources that we had available to do that.”
The Army Corps would eventually get more workers – but the process would take months, thanks in part to a dispute over government contracts that resulted in a temporary work stoppage.
After Hurricane Georges, the Corps had 44 contractors on the ground within weeks. After Maria, it had one and then took more than six weeks to open up a $93 million bid for two additional local contractors to help with the blue roof program.
Those contracts were targeted at local companies as part of efforts to reinvigorate the economy in areas impacted by the storm.
On Nov. 21, the Corps awarded the contracts to two bidders: a Puerto Rican firm called Power & Instrumentation Services, and another company called Ceres Caribe Inc. The Army Corps said that adding these two companies would “bring our capability up to around 1,000 roofs a day.” By this point, Ceres Environmental was putting up 400 roofs a day, bringing its total number of installations to about 11,000.
Venegas said that when he saw the award, he was puzzled. He had never heard of Ceres Caribe, but was struck by the name’s similarity to Ceres Environmental from Minnesota.
He pulled the company’s registration documents and found that Ceres Caribe was first registered in Puerto Rico in 1999. The documents listed its founder as David McIntyre, the founder of Ceres Environmental.
The federal contracting database shows that Ceres Caribe won at least 15 federal contracts between 2004 and 2009 worth more than $42 million for various construction jobs. But by 2011, the company’s annual report showed that it had no income or assets. In 2013 and 2014, Ceres Caribe failed to file annual reports or pay dues to the government, triggering warnings from the Puerto Rican State Department and a subsequent suspension of its registration. The company, Venegas found, had only renewed its registration three days after the Corps opened up the bidding process. According to registration documents, McIntyre is still the director and president.
“The bid was set aside for local companies. We thought that perhaps somebody in the Corps had made a mistake, and we submitted a protest to let them know about our opinion,” Venegas said.
Another Puerto Rican company, RBC Construction Corp., also protested. In response, the Army Corps temporarily halted the two contracts, but Ceres Environmental, the company with the original contract, kept working.
McIntyre was not available for an interview, but Rick Good, senior project manager for Ceres Caribe, said the company was, “a standalone corporation,” with separate management from Ceres Environmental, but that the two were owned by McIntyre. He said the company’s work after Maria was “of the highest quality” and that 90 percent of those employed on the project were locals.
The Army Corps said Ceres Caribe was evaluated as a separate company because as “a subsidiary of Ceres Environmental, they are considered two legally independent companies.” The Corps called the company’s bid proposal “one of two that were the best value to the Government.”
Ceres Environmental wrote that the new contract “was properly awarded.” It added, “Ceres Caribe, Inc. has over the years contributed greatly to the local economy and provided employment and training to Puerto Rican and other employees.”
Venegas said the Corps encouraged him to drop his protest in exchange for a contract of his own. He said he agreed. The Corps said his award came after “the number of roof requests increased.”
The protest from RBC Construction was dismissed on technical grounds. With the contracting dispute over, the Corps ended the work stoppage after eight days.
The additional workers helped. By Dec. 30, the Army Corps had put on 30,000 temporary roofs. Five days later, it reached its goal of 1,000 roofs a day.
By then, the program had helped just half of those approved for a temporary roof –something Hector Pesquera, Puerto Rico’s secretary for public safety and the commonwealth’s point person for the emergency response after Maria, noted critically in an internal report prepared for the governor.
The report said that the problems in the program stemmed from “bureaucratic delays associated with mobilizing personnel, a lack of pre-planning for this type of mission in Puerto Rico and the intricacies and unacceptable timelines associated with federal procurement actions.”
“The people of Puerto Rico deserve to have services established as fast as possible,” said Semonite. “I think we need to look as a country, what kind of response do we need to give in remote areas, and if we … need to put a lot more capability pre-storm, this is going to come at a cost.”
Just about six months to the day that Maria hit, the contractors working for the Corps finished the final blue roof in Puerto Rico – number 59,469. And now, more than seven months after Maria, thousands are still waiting for permanent repairs.
This piece originally appeared here
On April 22, 1970, 20 million people gathered across America marking the first Earth Day and the advent of a global environmental movement. Since then, the United States and other countries have adopted vital international agreements and national laws to better protect our planet. But in 2018, does Earth Day need a make-over? Nearly a half century later, the world faces a new threat that will have far more serious implications not just for the Earth but for human beings as well: climate change.