As the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina nears, questions continue to be raised about the federal government’s emergency evacuation plan. Critics blame an unusual and complicated contracting system for the delay that left thousands of desperate New Orleans residents stranded at the Superdome and the Convention Center for nearly a week.
The system was created when FEMA contracted hurricane evacuation services out to the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency responsible for overseeing the nation’s air traffic system. In turn, the FAA awarded a $500 million, five-year subcontract in 2002 to a Florida trucking company called Landstar System to provide evacuation vehicles — even though the company itself owns no buses.
Landstar’s CEO testified to Congress last fall that his company received its first mobilization "heads-up" from the FAA on Aug. 28, the day before Katrina struck, and that detailed written orders weren’t received until three days later. Government auditors say Landstar waited 18 hours after the storm hit before ordering a subcontractor, Carey Limousine, to provide evacuation buses. Carey then turned to yet another company to provide the 300 buses that eventually showed up in New Orleans six days after Katrina made landfall.
Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, says FEMA’s reliance on the FAA and Landstar hindered other bus companies that eagerly offered their services to help evacuate New Orleans residents. According to Pantuso, the system "led to a lot of confusion because of the multiple layers of brokers." Pantuso says his organization has been in extensive discussions with Landstar to improve the system, but that the problems "have not yet been resolved."
In addition, a report by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General found that Landstar had over-billed the government by $32 million dollars for services during Hurricane Katrina. The company has since refunded the money.