Florida was 'ill-prepared for a major hurricane, audit warned

Two National Guardsmen carry the belongings of WWII veteran Anthony Gentuso as he and his famly arrive at the Germain Arena that is serving as a shelter from the approaching Hurricane Irma on September 9. A December audit questions whether Florida is prepared for a major hurricane. [MARK WILSON | Getty Images]
Two National Guardsmen carry the belongings of WWII veteran Anthony Gentuso as he and his famly arrive at the Germain Arena that is serving as a shelter from the approaching Hurricane Irma on September 9. A December audit questions whether Florida is prepared for a major hurricane. [MARK WILSON | Getty Images]
Published Oct. 10, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Long before Florida entered the deadliest hurricane season in a decade, auditors at the state's Division of Emergency Management sent out a warning: the state was ill-prepared for a major disaster.

A 23-page annual audit completed in December 2016 by the agency's inspector general detailed a lengthy list of deficiencies needed to prepare and respond to a hurricane. Among them:

• Food and water supplies at the distribution center in Orlando were inadequate.

• Contracts with companies that would supply cots to shelters had expired.

• The agreements many trucking companies had signed with the state's emergency management agency to distribute supplies had lapsed.

• The agency was using "a spreadsheet created in the 1980s to help predict the amount of supplies and equipment that may be needed after a storm makes landfall," as the state's giant storage facility remained half empty.

What's worse, auditors warned, the state's emergency managers didn't know what they didn't know.

"Action is needed to determine the requirements of the state for supplies and equipment in the event of a disaster in order to ensure that adequate types and quantities of disaster supplies and equipment are available, inspectors said.

The report concluded: "The division's ability to respond to disasters may be impaired."

The audit findings were delivered to Bryan Koon, at the time secretary of the Division of Emergency Management, and his chief of staff, along with their deputies. They agreed with the criticisms and vowed to improve.

They said they would contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get advice on how to improve the state's stockpile of provisions. They said they would renew contracts and renegotiate others. They also gave themselves a deadline: March 2018 — 18 months after the audit report and four months after the end of the 2017 hurricane season.

But when Irma looked like it was going to assault the length of Florida's peninsula as a Category 4 hurricane, state emergency officials went into full scramble mode to make up for lost time.

"Shelter supplies that were not stockpiled" were obtained "through emergency order or provided by FEMA,'' said Alberto Moscoso, spokesperson for the Division of Emergency Management.

"Before Irma made landfall, the division oversaw the largest evacuation in Florida's history,'' said Wesley Maul, interim secretary of the department who replaced Koon last month.

He said the state opened a record of more than 600 shelters and delivered fuel and supplies and personnel to critical areas. "No county requests or needs went unmet during the preparation or response,'' he said.

DEM reports directly to the governor's office and has since 2011, when Scott dismantled the Department of Community Affairs, which had previously housed the state's emergency operations. Unlike Koon, who had a career in emergency management, Maul, 29, a former travel aide in Scott's 2014 campaign, has one year of experience.

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No one can say if the shortages of supplies and the expired contracts hampered the ability of emergency managers to prepare Florida for Hurricane Irma or delayed its recovery.

However, in the days leading up to the storm, there were anecdotal accounts of supply shortages and transportation lapses.

Emergency shelters in Miami-Dade County were delayed in opening because staff and supplies didn't show up. In many of them, there were no cots for the elderly and disabled and others awaited delivery of food from the National Guard. At South Dade Middle School there were only 600 meals for the 2,500 people staying at the shelter a day before the storm hit.

Koon told the Times/Herald at the time that it was county's job to open shelters and that they didn't need to be stocked with all the supplies in order to open.

"It is not vital that all of those things be in place," he said on Sept. 8, as Miami's shelters were filling to capacity. "The vital thing is they are in a hardened storm shelter."

At Cross City in Dixie County, 90 miles southeast of Tallahassee, June Richardson, 61, an elementary school cafeteria worker, took refuge in a middle-school shelter in one of the poorest communities in the state after power had been out in her home for more than four days. But the shelter had no food.

"They gave you a bottle of water and a bag of potato chips," Richardson told the Times/Herald.

Collier County opened 28 shelters before the storm made landfall in Florida, but at Gulf Coast High School in Naples on Sept. 10 there were no cots or beds for evacuees, "just seats," BuzzFeed reported.

This wasn't supposed to happen. After the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005, the Florida Legislature "found that improved logistical staging and warehouse capacity for supplies and equipment would help ensure adequate supplies and equipment would be available and accessible for responding to disasters," the December 2016 audit explained.

So the state built the State Logistics Response Center, the SLRC, in Orlando and used it to stockpile supplies and equipment needed in a disaster. But in audit after audit in recent years, inspectors warned that haphazard management of supplies, poor record keeping and inadequate preparation threatened the state's ability to respond to a natural disaster.

Although FEMA provides assistance to Florida in response to a hurricane, "FEMA expects Florida to be self-sufficient for the first 72 hours," the report said.

Auditors discovered that the warehouse was not only short of supplies, it was wasting money. More than half — 58 percent — of the warehouse space remained empty, while only 14 of the 27 office spaces were regularly used, the audit said. Auditors estimated the unused space was costing taxpayers $1.6 million a year.

Moscoso said that fast-tracking purchases the state was able to gather enough stockpile before Irma hit Florida.

"We could not fit any more supplies,'' he said. "Many counties returned large quantities of these items to both FEMA and the State of Florida."

The auditors, however, spelled out other problems.

Shelters: Auditors found an inadequate stockpile of food, water and cots needed for emergency shelters. While the state relies on the American Red Cross and Salvation Army to manage and provide supplies to shelters, auditors found "these entities may not have enough resources to support a large disaster."

"While it is unclear whether the Division is expected to provide shelter supplies, the Division has a stockpile of shelter supplies," the audit said.

There was no sign that emergency managers considered the stockpile sufficient, it said. "The Division recently had a contract in place to obtain additional cots if needed in a disaster, but that contract has expired."

Equipment: The contract with forklift operators to unload supplies from trucks at the distribution centers had "expired and has not been renewed."

Water: The state has a contract with vendors to supply water and ice to the logistics center in Orlando, but it "lacks specific terms requiring delivery within 24 hours." A backup contract from a vendor to deliver water and ice "was not renewed." As of May 2016, the logistics center had stored only enough water for 215,633 people for three days, but auditors said FEMA recommends each survivor of a disaster must have one gallon of water every day.

Meals: The state has a contract with a vendor to supply 333,334 meal kits, containing three meals per kit. But an inspection in May 2016 found there were no kits on hand. After inspectors conducted a surprise review, one truckload of food kits was delivered.

Transportation: Counties rely on the state to transport supplies to points of distribution within 12 to 24 hours after the storm, but auditors found "the Division does not currently have trucks on hand" and the state's contract for delivery of supplies and equipment stored at the logistics center "has not been renewed."

The Division of Emergency Management was unable to answer how much more the last-minute supplies cost the state through emergency contracts and FEMA purchases than it would have had the state stockpiled more supplies before the storm. Auditors said the agency lacked an analysis that showed which approach was the most cost-efficient option.

Auditors also noted the lack of clear direction and oversight, saying they were "unable to identify clear expectations of the division to provide supplies and equipment to shelters." They also questioned the wisdom of the state relying on vendors to supply water after a disaster, instead of ordering it and stockpiling it in advance.

This was not the first time auditors warned of deficiencies and sloppy record keeping.

In a January 2014 audit, the agency's inspector general found "the Division had not established written policies and procedures specifically governing the management of the disaster supplies and equipment warehoused at the SLRC."

It said supplies could disappear and there would be no accounting.

"Without a completed accountable property form, it may not be possible to enforce accountability for damaged, lost or stolen property," auditors wrote.

DEM responded by blaming staff shortages. "Division management stated that, because of limited staff, policies and procedures governing the management of disaster supplies and equipment had not been established," the 2014 audit stated.

Auditors made a similar complaint a year later when a February 2015 audit of inventory found no documentation of some supplies and, when items went missing, the division did not consistently report it "or file reports with the appropriate law enforcement agency."

"Without a completed accountable property form, it may not be possible to enforce accountability for damaged, lost or stolen property," auditors wrote.

Another audit, completed June 28, 2017, found inadequate oversight of a program that allows DEM to hire temporary employees to aid in recovery efforts. The so-called "reservists" are paid $16 to $18 an hour, with overtime paid at a rate of one-and-a-half times the regular rate. They are required to complete a five-part online training source provided by FEMA and learn how to use a special credit card given to employees while traveling during the emergency.

Auditors found that some reservists trained but never showed up when called to duty. Others "lost equipment and had equipment destroyed" and were never held accountable. A better arrangement, auditors said, would be to better coordinate with volunteer organizations.

Ryan Cragun, a Tampa resident who volunteered with his wife at a Hillsborough County school that was used as a shelter, wrote about that lack of organization in a Sept. 14 letter to the editor of the Tampa Bay Times.

"The principal and her staff did what they could, but the volunteers were put in charge of registering people who showed up. They had virtually no training but were suddenly told they were responsible for an entire shelter,'' he said, adding: "Having shelters was right. Not having trained people to staff the shelters was wrong."

Moscoso said DEM is working to "utilize resources appropriately to improve the quality of reservist sent out into the field." It is also "collaborating with FEMA to create an analysis to determine if new requirements for the stockpile are needed." After the Times/Herald inquiry, the agency says it will now have the analysis completed by December 2017.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas