ICE CUBES FOR KATRINA
Stumbling Storm-Aid Effort Put Tons of Ice on Trips to Nowhere
WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 - When the definitive story of the confrontation between Hurricane Katrina and the United States government is finally told, one long and tragicomic chapter will have to be reserved for the odyssey of the ice.
Ninety-one thousand tons of ice cubes, that is, intended to cool food, medicine and sweltering victims of the storm. It would cost taxpayers more than $100 million, and most of it would never be delivered.
The somewhat befuddled heroes of the tale will be truckers like Mark Kostinec, who was dropping a load of beef in Canton, Ohio, on Sept. 2 when his dispatcher called with an urgent government job: Pick up 20 tons of ice in Greenville, Pa., and take it to Carthage, Mo., a staging area for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Mr. Kostinec, 40, a driver for Universe Truck Lines of Omaha, was happy to help with the crisis. But at Carthage, instead of unloading, he was told to take his 2,000 bags of ice on to Montgomery, Ala.
After a day and a half in Montgomery, he was sent to Camp Shelby, in Mississippi. From there, on Sept. 8, he was waved onward to Selma, Ala. And after two days in Selma he was redirected to Emporia, Va., along with scores of other frustrated drivers who had been following similarly circuitous routes.
At Emporia, Mr. Kostinec sat for an entire week, his trailer burning fuel around the clock to keep the ice frozen, as FEMA officials studied whether supplies originally purchased for Hurricane Katrina might be used for Hurricane Ophelia. But in the end only 3 of about 150 ice trucks were sent to North Carolina, he said. So on Sept. 17, Mr. Kostinec headed to Fremont, Neb., where he unloaded his ice into a government-rented storage freezer the next day.
"I dragged that ice around for 4,100 miles, and it never got used," Mr. Kostinec said. A former mortgage broker and Enron computer technician, he had learned to roll with the punches, and he was pleased to earn $4,500 for the trip, double his usual paycheck. He was perplexed, however, by the government's apparent bungling.
"They didn't seem to know how much ice they were buying and how much they were using," he said. "All the truckers said the money was good. But we were upset about not being able to help."
In the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Kostinec's government-ordered meandering was not unusual. Partly because of the mass evacuation forced by Hurricane Katrina, and partly because of what an inspector general's report this week called a broken system for tracking goods at FEMA, the agency ordered far more ice than could be distributed to people who needed it.
Over about a week after the storm, FEMA ordered 211 million pounds of ice for Hurricane Katrina, said Rob Holland, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which buys the ice that FEMA requests under a contract with IAP Worldwide Services of Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Officials eventually realized that that much ice was overkill, and managed to cancel some of the orders. But the 182 million pounds actually supplied turned out to be far more than could be delivered to victims.
In the end, Mr. Holland said, 59 percent of the ice was trucked to storage freezers all over the country to await the next disaster; some has been used for Hurricane Rita.
Of $200 million originally set aside for ice purchases, the bill for the Hurricane Katrina purchases so far is more than $100 million - and climbing, Mr. Holland said. Under the ice contract, the government pays about $12,000 to buy a 20-ton truckload of ice, delivered to its original destination. If it is moved farther, the price is $2.60 a mile, and a day of waiting costs up to $900, Mr. Holland said.
Those numbers add up fast, and reports like Mr. Kostinec's have stirred concern on Capitol Hill, as more wearying evidence of the federal government's incoherent response to the catastrophe.
At a hearing on Wednesday, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, expressed astonishment that many truckloads of ice had ended up in storage 1,600 miles from the Hurricane Katrina damage zone in her state, apparently because the storage contractor, AmeriCold Logistics, had run out of space farther south.
"The American taxpayers, and especially the Katrina victims, cannot endure this kind of wasteful spending," Ms. Collins said.
Asked about trips like Mr. Kostinec's, Nicol Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman, said: "He was put on call for a need and the need was not realized, so he went home. Any reasonable person recognizes the fact that it makes sense to prepare for the worst, hope for the best and place your resources where they may be needed."
Unlike an ordinary hurricane, which may leave a large population in still-habitable housing but without power for days or weeks, Hurricane Katrina destroyed neighborhoods and led to unprecedented evacuation, Ms. Andrews said.
"The population we ordered the ice for had been dispersed," she said, "which is good, because they are out of harm's way."
Ms. Andrews said FEMA realized it must improve its monitoring of essential items. The new report by the homeland security inspector general says that after last year's hurricanes million of dollars of ice was left unused in Florida because FEMA had "no automated way to coordinate quantities of commodities with the people available to accept and distribute them."
Ms. Andrews said, "There are programs in the works that will help us better track commodities, not just ice, but water and tarps and food." One system would use bar codes and a global positioning system, "so literally we will know exactly where every bag of ice is."
Some people, including Michael D. Brown, the former FEMA director, have questioned why the agency spends so much money moving ice.
"I feebly attempted to get FEMA out of the business of ice," Mr. Brown told a House panel this week. "I don't think that's a federal government responsibility to provide ice to keep my hamburger meat in my freezer or refrigerator fresh."
But ice, even Mr. Brown agreed, at times plays a critical role, like helping keep patients alive at places like Meadowcrest Hospital, in Gretna, La. After the hurricane hit, the air-conditioning went out and temperatures inside climbed into the 90's.
"Physicians and staff attempted to cool patients by placing ice in front of fans," Phillip Sowa, the hospital's chief executive, wrote in an online account of the ordeal.
Archie Harris, a Wilmington, N.C., ice merchant who serves as disaster preparedness chairman for the International Packaged Ice Association, said that while FEMA had been criticized mostly as being underprepared, on the ice question it was being criticized for being overprepared. "FEMA can't win right now," Mr. Harris said. "Can you imagine what people would say if they'd run out of ice?"
Not all of the ice delivery trips, by an estimated 4,000 drivers, ended in frustration. Mike Snyder, a truck driver from Berwick, Pa., took an excruciating journey that started in Allentown, Pa., on Sept. 16 and did not end until two weeks later, on Friday morning, when he arrived in Tarkington Prairie, Tex.
The electricity was out in the small community. When Mr. Snyder pulled up in front of a local church and unloaded his ice, residents were overjoyed to see him. "I felt like I did a lot of good," he said.
Truck drivers who pinballed around the country felt differently.
Having almost lost his Florida home to a hurricane last year, Jeff Henderson was eager to help when he heard that FEMA needed truckers to carry ice. He drove at his own expense to Wisconsin to collect a 20-ton load and delivered it to the Carthage staging area.
Then he, too, was sent across the South: Meridian, Miss.; Selma; and finally Memphis, where he waited five days and then delivered his ice to storage.
"I can't understand what happened," Mr. Henderson said. "The government's the only customer that plays around like that."
Mike Hohnstein, a dispatcher in Omaha, sent a truckload out of Dubuque, Iowa, to Meridian. From there, the driver was sent to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, to Columbia, S.C., and finally to Cumberland, Md., where he bought a lawn chair and waited for six days.
Finally, 10 days after he started, the driver was told to take the ice to storage in Bettendorf, Iowa, Mr. Hohnstein said. The truck had traveled 3,282 miles, but not a cube of ice had reached a hurricane victim.
"Well," Mr. Hohnstein said, "the driver got to see the country."
His company's bill to the government will exceed $15,000, he said, but the ice was worth less than $5,000. "It seemed like an incredible waste of money," he said.
The next time FEMA calls for help, it may find the response far less willing. After two Universe Truck Lines drivers spent more than two weeks on the road to no purpose, the company decided it had had enough. When a FEMA contractor called and asked if the company could take some ice stored in Fremont, Neb., to Fort Worth, Tex., Universe said no.
"Our trucks had been tied up for 17 days," Sean Smal, a Universe dispatcher, said. "We couldn't take another trip like those."