Hurricane survivors are being put at risk in Texas and other hot weather states because the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is no longer providing ice in relief situations, say watchdogs, relief workers and local leaders in Hurricane Alley.
"It's frustrating that the government can deliver $85 billion to bail out AIG, and they can't deliver ice in Texas," said Ben Smilowitz, executive director of the Disaster Accountability Project (DAP), a nonpartisan organization that monitors the nation's disaster response system.
In fact, while the federal government can deliver ice to disaster areas, it's chosen not to, under newly-revised FEMA rules. Instead, individual states and local governments are now tasked with purchasing, delivering and storing ice, even though they face tough logistical challenges in doing so, according to critics of the new policy.
"FEMA is effectively saying we can't guarantee you ice," said Mike Womack, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Besides preserving food when electricity is out, ice is essential in maintaining temperature-sensitive medication and feeding formulas and keeping people cool in the aftermath of disaster, relief and support workers say.
"This isn't for their gin and tonics," said Elise Hough, CEO of the Houston chapter of United Cerebral Palsy, who says she encountered a lot of indifference when she started raising the issue of FEMA's ice policy last month. "This is for people who are extremely sensitive to heat, and ice has a huge impact on their health and safety."
FEMA says it instituted its new policy in July 2007, although those in disaster relief circles widely point to the National Hurricane Conference in Florida in April as the announcement of the change.
There, FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison told attendees that the agency would stop providing ice to disaster victims, except in the case of medical emergencies or life-threatening situations, according to media reports at the time.
That's the first time, support workers, watchdogs and local officials say they heard about the policy change, just as hurricane season was beginning. Since then, many say, they've had no direction or guidance as to what the new procedures entail.
"I would be thinking that [FEMA] would be communicating through emergency management officials to volunteer citizens that this is how ice is going to be handled in the case of an emergency, but I haven't heard anything," said Annie Anthony, executive director of the Cape Fear Volunteer Center in Wilmington, NC.
Instead, Anthony learned of the policy from DAP.
And Bob Ronne, board president of the disAbility Resource Center in Wilmington, NC, said once there's a medical emergency, a term which he says FEMA has not clearly defined, "it's a little too late to think about ice."
"Ice has to be there to prevent the medical emergencies," said Ronne.
Change in Policy
A FEMA spokesperson said the policy change is a result of leftover ice after the 2005 and 2006 hurricane seasons, which the agency paid millions of dollars to store and then melt when it was no longer fit for consumption.
Another spokesperson said the new policy is part of "a smarter business model," in which states must provide ice themselves and then call in FEMA if there's trouble.