Lawmakers angry that emergency preparedness money not spent

Dec 13, 2007

Sarasota Herald Tribune, 12/13/2007

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Angry lawmakers on Thursday said they were stunned to find out in recent weeks that millions of dollars in state and federal money meant to make communities more ready for hurricanes hasn’t been spent.
After the busy hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, and after seeing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Florida lawmakers wanted to make sure the state would always be prepared. Legislators opened the checkbook and ordered all kinds of stuff – generators for shelters, a new warehouse for emergency supplies and new emergency operations bunkers.

Nearly two years later, many generators aren’t in use, the state can’t find items that were supposed to be purchased and it appears $100 million dollars remains unspent.’Almost a year and a half ago, $151 million was allocated for generators, shelters, emergency operations centers, a warehouse, a plan, a public awareness campaign, and so far of that $151 million, you’ve spent about $21 million,’ Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said during a testy grilling of top state Division of Emergency Management officials by the Senate Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee.

One of the biggest parts of the preparedness legislation, passed with much fanfare in spring of 2006, was a plan to put a generator in every hurricane shelter for people with special needs. That was to avoid situations like those in 2004, when victims of Hurricanes Charley, Ivan, Frances and Jeanne who had medical conditions were staying in hot shelters with no electricity for air conditioning.

The generators have been bought, but nearly 40 of them are sitting in an Ocala warehouse waiting. Now, the agency doesn’t have the cash to install them.

While the agency appears to have plenty of money left over in parts of its budget, most government spending can’t simply be moved around from one program to another without legislative approval.

Florida Deputy Emergency Management Director Ruben Almaguer said it would take another $50 million to get the generators installed, an answer lawmakers didn’t like.’You need how much more?’ a stunned Fasano asked. ‘You need to double what we’ve allocated?’Almaguer said emergency officials essentially had to guess at the cost to build and install the giant generators and fuel tanks because it had never been done before.

They guessed wrong, and since the legislation was passed, construction, insurance and labor costs have gone up. Almaguer said some costs are ten times what officials initially estimated.

Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate, a generally well-respected official who led the state through those two busy hurricane seasons, chalked the problem up to overreaching.’We went into the unknown,’ Fugate said. ‘Various decisions were made that, in hindsight, do not seem like good decisions.’For example, the agency bought generators before it could install them because of fears a backlog would prevent them from getting them before another hurricane.

There also appears to have been a disconnect between what lawmakers thought they would get and what they actually got. Fasano said lawmakers told the agency to build a warehouse, and expected a large building holding ice, food, and other supplies needed after a disaster.

What the agency built was a ‘logistics center,’ to coordinate the movement of the supplies around the state. It includes computers and televisions to help emergency managers direct the movement of supplies.

In some cases, the agency appears to have bought supplies that weren’t approved or contemplated by lawmakers such as Segway scooters.’When my constituents find out they’re buying $16,000 worth of (Segways) that were never approved by the Legislature, people want answers,’ Fasano said.Fugate defended the purchase by saying the scooters help security officers and other employees get around quickly at the agency’s new logistics center. Without them, they’d need to hire more staff at the huge facility.

Other money doesn’t seem to have been spent at all. Fasano said there didn’t appear to be a record of the purchase of global positioning systems included in the budget proposal. The devices were intended to go on trucks that would distribute supplies after a disaster.

The agency didn’t immediately have answers for what happened to all of the money that it was supposed to spend on the projects ordered up in the legislation. Emergency Management officials said in several cases they’d have to get back with lawmakers to provide explanations.

The questioning was cut short Thursday because the committee ran out of time on its agenda, but Fasano ordered officials from the agency to come back to a January meeting for more.