FEMA Change Sends States Searching For Ice
By Nathaniel Weixel, Special to Stateline
As Bertha, the first hurricane of the season, churns in the Atlantic, a new policy about ice by the Federal Emergency Management Agency has some state officials along the Gulf Coast steamed.
FEMA officials will no longer hand out ice to residents in the wake of a storm, leaving that responsibility to the states, the agency announced late last month. FEMA will provide ice only in medical emergencies or life threatening situations, but will reimburse states for a large part of their costs for providing ice.
State emergency officials in Alabama and Mississippi are worried about the lack of federal help and say they think ice is a critical necessity. Yet Florida officials, like FEMA, call ice a comfort item. State officials there say they aren't worried about the new policy, mainly because they believe private vendors are readily available.
Previously, FEMA purchased ice from national suppliers before a disaster and stored it in a number of facilities nationwide. They then transported and distributed it to victims. States could also buy and store their own ice locally on a more limited capacity. FEMA said the agency changed its policy because it decided states and local governments are in a better position to provide resources for victims.
Lauree Ashom, spokeswoman for Alabama 's Emergency Management Agency, said ice is an important commodity in the south, especially after a hurricane.
"Heat is an issue," Ashom wrote in an e-mail to Stateline.org . "If there is no electricity and no likelihood of it being restored quickly, ice keeps food from spoiling and keeps medicines cool."
Without ice, drinking water warms and people don't drink as much, which leads to dehydration, said Lea Stokes, deputy administrator for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
"In the days after Katrina, (the temperature) was anywhere from the mid-90s to 100 degrees," Stokes said. Ice is a luxury item only "if you're sitting in the air conditioning, not if you have hot water bottles," she said.
Many state and federal lawmakers criticized FEMA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the agency was left with nearly 85 million pounds of ice, which it stored for two years at a price tag of $12.5 million. Calls to the agency for comment were referred to its Web site.
According to the Web site, the decision to continue to store the ice for the 2006 hurricane season was based on predictions that it would be an active storm season. But that didn't happen, and none of the ice was used. By the end of the 2006 hurricane season, the ice reached the end of its shelf life and was thrown out.
Since the announcement of the policy change, Alabama has been identifying ice vendors in the state that could respond quickly in a disaster. Ashom said state officials are also pursuing "pre-event contracts" with vendors, so the state can be better prepared.
In Mississippi , Stokes said FEMA's new ice policy will force the state to purchase and store ice in much greater quantities.
FEMA has said it will reimburse up to 75 percent of the cost for states to purchase and distribute ice to disaster victims. In an emergency, the agency said it will rely on purchasing ice from local merchants or arranging contracts with larger vendors through the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers
According to a FEMA statement, once the government determines a situation is a medical emergency or life-threatening, it will order the Corps to respond. The Corps' new ice contract guarantees it will deliver to stricken communities up to 3 million pounds of ice within 24 hours.
State officials said they were aware FEMA was considering getting out of the ice business since the end of the 2006 hurricane season, so the decision wasn't a complete surprise. But there was still disappointment and anger when the announcement came.
Alabama officials said they felt FEMA hadn't considered all the factors involved.
U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor (D) of Mississippi , who lost his home in Katrina's floodwaters, was less diplomatic. In a letter to FEMA director David Paulson, he wrote, "This decision must have been made by those who were comfortably up at FEMA headquarters. FEMA appears to be governed by a bureaucratic culture that looks for excuses to deny assistance."
But Florida stopped storing ice at the end of the 2005 hurricane season for much of the same reasons FEMA stopped after last season. The state policy remains largely untested, however, since Florida has not been hit by a major storm since its implementation.
"We had such excess," said Blair Heusdens, deputy public information officer of the Florida Department of Emergency Management. "Retailers were opening their doors to sell ice, while we were giving it out in the parking lot."
If there is a storm, individual counties can make requests to the state, and the state will assess their needs and buy ice from local vendors. Even then, Heusdens said, the ice would go to the people who might really need it, such as those in hospitals or nursing homes, and not the general public.
Stokes said it makes sense for Florida to go along with FEMA's policy, because it is a much larger state than Mississippi and isn't still recovering from a catastrophic storm.
"We don't have a lot of the larger (ice) companies, so we're at a disadvantage," Stokes said. "Ice is expensive to store and buy, but easier for the larger states."
Stokes said she feels as if small states will be in competition with larger ones for ice vendor contracts, a sentiment shared by Alabama 's Ashom.
The memories of FEMA's shortcomings after Hurricane Katrina loom large in many Gulf Coast residents. In that sense, it might not be such a bad idea to let the states deal with their own ice in non-life threatening situations, Stokes said. But many residents say they feel betrayed by FEMA's decision to stop purchasing and storing ice altogether.
"There's a personal aspect they're missing," Stokes said. "There were problems with logistics [during Katrina]. They've just decided not to fix it …People are scared they'll be in the same situation as before."