A Florida company with close ties to the Bush family and a $100 million subcontract to handle evacuations for the government failed to send buses to New Orleans until almost a week after the mayor ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city. Tim Shorrock looks at why, in this article originally published in the January 21/22, 2006, issue of Counterpunch.
The U.S. Department of Transportation may hold the key to one of the biggest unanswered questions from Hurricane Katrina:
Why did it take nearly a week for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to mobilize private buses to evacuate thousands of city residents desperately seeking rescue from the horrific conditions in the Superdome, the Convention Center and the open tarmac of Interstate 10?
Clues to that mystery will come in the form of an audit into a FEMA contract for hurricane evacuation services awarded in 2002 to the Federal Aviation Administration. An initial report on the audit, which was quietly opened last October by the DOT's Office of Inspector General, is nearing completion and will be released to the public soon, a DOT official told Reconstruction Watch.
So far, the IG's office suspects that that the FAA "did not verify that the services were performed," said David Barnes, a public affairs officer in the Office of Inspector General. As a result, the IG "has raised questions about the FAA's internal controls."
The audit is also focused on Landstar Express America Inc. A trucking and logistics company based in Jacksonville, Fla., Landstar is a politically well-connected corporation that's risen to the top of the U.S. transportation industry without actually owning any trucks. Chairman Jeffrey Crowe served until recently as head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and last April Florida Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him to his Advisory Council on Base Realignment and Closure.
Landstar managed the evacuation contract for the FAA under a $100 million subcontract signed in October 2002. The audit "is an ongoing thing," said Barnes. IG inspectors are still not sure how the contract ended up at FAA, which manages the nation's air traffic control system, he added.
"It's classic government....There were too many people in the chain of command."
The FAA would not comment, and FEMA press officials did not return telephone calls. A Landstar vice president did not respond to a request for comment, either.
Landstar, however, has not been reticent to talk about its profits from the contract. Last October, the company disclosed that $129.8 million of the $676 million it earned in revenue during the third quarter of 2005 was directly attributable to its "disaster relief" contract with "the United States Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration."
By all accounts, the FAA and Landstar failed miserably to help the citizens of New Orleans escape from their drowned city. And when the crisis hit, FEMA, whose bungling during Katrina has become legendary, was unaware that it had even contracted the operation to FAA, or that FAA had subcontracted the work to Landstar.
"It's classic government," said Peter Pantuso, president of the American Busing Association, which represents many of the companies involved in the evacuation. "There were too many people in the chain of command."