September 18, 2008 -- 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.
"When a state has a need for ice that they're not able to provide on their own, we'll provide that ice through partnerships with missions," said the spokesperson, pointing to the current situation in Texas in which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been charged with ice delivery. She also said states can apply for reimbursement for ice from FEMA, although relief workers and watchdogs say that logistical issues are not helped by money that comes after the fact.
Smilowitz takes issue with both points, countering, "It's contrary to the whole purpose of FEMA… Just the fact that FEMA is involved means the disaster is over the head of the state."
And Womack, who recalls having to tell Hurricane Katrina victims that there wasn't enough ice for them, strongly opposes the new policy, calling it "a lifesaving issue." He said that because neighboring states have to contract out their plans for ice, they are essentially competing against each other in the face of disaster.
"We would get into bidding wars with contractors and we may not be able to purchase as much as the larger states," said Womack. "Our state and probably a lot of other states need the assistance of the federal government in purchasing and distributing ice."
Womack, who coordinated Mississippi's resources following devastation by Katrina, said FEMA needs to think in terms of safety, not dollar signs.
Congress, officials and oversight agencies, he said, must recognize that adequate disaster relief requires financial commitment.
"I would like them all to acknowledge that you do have to spend money to be totally prepared," said Womack.
'Desperate' For Ice
"We have small babies who don't have ice, who don't have water," says one Texas Gulf Coast resident struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.
"We need ice over here ASAP so that we can store this insulin," says another, whose 83 year-old parents depend on the temperature-regulated medication numerous times a day.
In the matter-of-fact words of one more resident, "We need ice desperately."
They are just three of over 80 calls the DAP has received on its hotline since Ike hit last week, at least a third of which, says Executive Director Ben Smilowitz, pertain to the issue of not being able to get ice.
"The people on the ground don't know who's doing what," Smilowitz said.
Now, as confusion escalates in Texas over who is in charge of ice and how and where survivors can get it, an unlikely group is stepping in to take on the duty that has traditionally belonged to the federal government.
Sam's Club President Doug McMillon responded Wed. to a plea from Houston Mayor Bill White for donations of ice in case rations run out this week.
McMillon said, "'Where do you want it, and how much?'" said White's Director of Communications Frank Michel. "Anywhere we can get ice, we're making that appeal."
White and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett announced Tues. that they would take the lead in distributing supplies to survivors after reports that thousands of Houston residents stood in line for hours for emergency food, water, ice and tarps at disaster relief sites while trucks filled with supplies sat in empty parking lots.
This type of confusion, says Smilowitz, is reminiscent of relief after Hurricane Katrina and is exacerbated by FEMA's new "failed policy," in which the agency only steps in when "the state's response falls through."
"FEMA has many more resources at its disposal than the state of Texas," said Smilowitz. "Instead of testing it out to see if the state can get it right, this is something FEMA should do."
That's why he launched a campaign that calls on FEMA to reverse its policy and once again assume responsibility of ice delivery and planning.
"We're not saying FEMA's done nothing right, but for ice policy they get an F," said Smilowitz, warning that the situation is only going to get worse. "There's been literally no solution for these individuals and, as time continues, there will be even more burdens on the 9-1-1 system because basic self-maintenance will be impossible."
In North Carolina, Bob Ronne hopes that a solution will come soon. He's right in the middle of Hurricane Alley, he says, and it's been an active season.
Sitting in his wheelchair, which he has been confined to since a car accident left him paralyzed in 1986, Ronne goes through the seven medications he depends on daily for his spinal cord injury. When asked how he would be affected after a disaster if he didn't have ice to keep those medicines safe, Ronne has trouble finding words.
"It's something I don't want to imagine," he said eventually.
DAP's hotline is open for calls and to receive reports of gaps in disaster relief and response services at 866-9-TIP-DAP.