Nation/World

After Hurricane Maria, a one-woman company was awarded a huge contract by FEMA to provide 30 million meals. Only 50,000 were delivered.

  • Author: Patricia Mazzei, Agustin Armendariz, The New York Times
  • Updated: February 7
  • Published February 7

FILE — People in San Isidro, Puerto Rico, wait in line for water and food on Oct. 2, 2017, 12 days after Hurricane Maria. The Federal Emergency Management Agency terminated a big contract with a tiny vendor hired to produce meals for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and now, Congress is asking questions. (Erika P. Rodriguez/The New York Times)

The mission for the Federal Emergency Management Agency was clear: Hurricane Maria had torn through Puerto Rico, and hungry people needed food. Thirty million meals needed to be delivered as soon as possible.

For this huge task, FEMA tapped Tiffany Brown, an Atlanta entrepreneur with no experience in large-scale disaster relief and at least five canceled government contracts in her past. FEMA awarded her $156 million for the job, and Brown, who is the sole owner and employee of her company, Tribute Contracting LLC, set out to find some help.

Brown, who is adept at navigating the federal contracting system, hired a wedding caterer in Atlanta with a staff of 11 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."

"Do not ship another meal. Your contract is terminated," Carolyn Ward, the FEMA contracting officer who handled Tribute's agreement, wrote to Brown in an email dated Oct. 19 that Brown provided to The New York Times. "This is a logistical nightmare."

FILE — The contents of the boxes of food from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that were distributed to residents of San Isidro, Puerto Rico, Oct. 2, 2017. (Erika P. Rodriguez/The New York Times)

Four months after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, a picture is emerging of the contracts awarded in the earliest days of the crisis. And examples like the Tribute contract are causing lawmakers to raise questions about FEMA's handling of the disaster and whether the agency was adequately prepared to respond.

On Tuesday, Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, which has been investigating the contract, asked Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the committee chairman, to subpoena FEMA for all documents relating to the agreement. Lawmakers fear the agency is not lining up potential contractors in advance of natural disasters, leading it to scramble to award multimillion-dollar agreements in the middle of a crisis.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a bipartisan congressional investigation found that a failure to secure advance contracts led to chaos and potential for waste and fraud. Democrats asserted that FEMA was similarly inept preparing for this storm.

"It appears that the Trump Administration's response to the hurricanes in Puerto Rico in 2017 suffered from the same flaws as the Bush Administration's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005," wrote Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., and Stacey E. Plaskett, the nonvoting Democratic delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Amanda Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Gowdy, said FEMA has given the Oversight Committee regular briefings since lawmakers asked for them in October and at no point had Democrats mentioned the Tribute contract. Sending a subpoena to an agency cooperating with Congress "is premature," Gonzalez said in a statement.

In November, 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.

FEMA insists no Puerto Ricans missed a meal as a result of the failed agreement with Tribute. FEMA relied on other suppliers that provided "ample" food and water for distribution, said William Booher, an agency spokesman.

A photo by Paola Singer of Pernileria los Proceres, a food truck at Lote 23, an Instagram-ready, open-air food court in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that offers everything from locally sourced roasted pork to Asian noodles. (Paola Singer via The New York Times)

But there is little doubt that in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans struggled with access to food. The storm shut down ports on an island that imports about 85 percent of its food supply. Farms were flattened. Supermarkets lost electricity and could not find diesel to run their generators. The stores that opened using generator power could not offer much from their understocked shelves.

Puerto Ricans depended heavily on emergency aid dispatched by FEMA. The Department of Homeland Security has doled out more than $1 billion in contracts related to Hurricane Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.

On Oct. 3, FEMA awarded one of its largest food contracts to Tribute. For $5.10 each, the company agreed to provide 30 million ready-to-eat meals by Oct. 23.

Brown described herself in an interview as a government contractor — "almost like a broker," she said — who does not keep employees or specialize in any field but is able to procure subcontracted work as needed, and get a cut of the money along the way. She claims a fashion line and has several self-published books, and describes herself on Twitter as "A Diva, Mogul, Author, Idealist with scars to prove it."

After Tribute's failure to provide the meals became clear, FEMA formally terminated the contract for cause, citing Tribute's late delivery of approved meals. Brown is disputing the termination. On Dec. 22, she filed an appeal, arguing that the real reason FEMA canceled her contract was because the meals were packed separately from the heating pouches, not because of their late delivery. Brown claims the agency did not specify that the meals and heaters had to be together.

She is seeking a settlement of at least $70 million. Her subcontractors, Cooking With A Star LLC, and Breedlove Foods Inc., have threatened to sue her for breach of contract, Brown said. Kendra Robinson, the caterer who runs Cooking With A Star, said she has about 75,000 meals her company prepared for FEMA sitting in an Atlanta warehouse.

In a statement, FEMA said it would be "inappropriate" to comment on a contract pending an appeal. But the agency noted it continues to provide meals to Puerto Ricans, despite an error by an agency spokesman last week that suggested the emergency aid would stop.

"At the time of the contract termination there were ample commodity supplies in the pipeline, and distribution was not affected," said Booher, the agency spokesman. "During the 2017 hurricane season FEMA sourced over 200 million meals through multiple vendors in order to support disaster response activities across multiple disasters."

Tribute has been awarded dozens of government contracts since 2013, including one in 2015 for $1.2 million in mattresses for the Defense Logistics Agency, which supports military combat troops, federal spending databases show. Tribute delivered the mattresses, according to the agency. The databases offer only a fragmented picture of federal contracts.

Isla Verde beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria, parts of the Puerto Rican capital are back in business. Tourism is down but the scene can be lively. (Paola Singer via The New York Times)

The government has also canceled Tribute contracts on at least five occasions.

Four cancellations involved the federal prison system, which found that Tribute failed to deliver meat, bakery, cereal and other food products to various correctional institutions. A fifth termination involved the Government Publishing Office, which terminated a contract for 3,000 tote bags after Tribute failed to print the Marine Corps logo on both sides of the bags.

An investigation by the office's inspector general found that Tribute "altered and submitted a false shipping document and subcontracted the predominant production function on two contracts without proper authorization," according to a 2015 report submitted to Congress.

The report did not name Tribute, but a Government Publishing Office spokesman confirmed that it was the Georgia company mentioned in the document. The office awarded Tribute 14 contracts totaling more than $80,000 from 2014-15, and the company "routinely delivered late," the report said.

As a result of the botched tote-bag job, the Government Publishing Office prohibited the award of any contracts over $35,000to Tribute until January 2019. But that exclusion applied only to that office, not to any other federal agency.

Tribute has had three indefinite contracts with FEMA for hygiene kits since 2013, but none of them have been activated.

Asked about the cancellations, Brown offered explanations for each case, including that she had supplier trouble with the prison meals. She could have fought the Government Publishing Office on the tote bags contract, she said, but could not afford to at the time.

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee say Tribute's contract history should have given FEMA serious pause about awarding the company a huge food contract.

"Clearly, Tribute did not have sufficient financial resources of its own to support this contract," they wrote. "Based on Tribute's lack of experience in large-scale disaster relief and its limited financial capacity, FEMA should have raised serious questions about whether the company could meet the contract terms — especially since the contract concerned such a critical need."

Brown said she had no doubt she could have provided the 30 million meals, though she estimated she would have needed until at least Nov. 7 — two weeks past FEMA's deadline, and still an unlikely completion date, given Tribute's pace of delivery by the time the contract was canceled.

"They probably should have gone with someone else, but I'm assuming they did not because this was the third hurricane" after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Brown said. "They were trying to fill the orders the best they could."