FEMA paid Mobile contractor $6.2 million for hurricane lunches

Published 11:57 pm Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered 415,000 box lunches for the hurricane relief effort in Louisiana from a Mobile-based firm for $6.2 million.

FEMA agreed to pay Clearbrook LLC $14.85 per lunch, but did not spell out what the firm was supposed to supply by way of food and drink, the Press-Register reported Friday.

FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said the agency ordered boxed lunches because supplies of prepackaged — and much cheaper — Meals Ready to Eat were running short. Clearbrook provided 415,000 lunches under the contract, he said.

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Despite the contract’s requirement that the food be nonperishable, Clearbrook President Bruce Wagner said that on oral instructions from the government, each lunch contained two ham or roast beef sandwiches with eight ounces of meat each, fruit, candy, a bag of chips and a drink.

The contract also called for the meals to be part of the relief effort in southwestern Louisiana after Hurricane Rita hit that area. McIntyre did not explain why Clearbrook ended up serving residents in New Orleans instead of southwestern Louisiana or how FEMA settled on the final price per lunch.

“That’s an awfully expensive lunch,” said Banana Docks Cafe owner Chris Raley of Mobile, who said he provided 350 lunches a day for employees of a Maryland firm doing Hurricane Katrina repairs in Mississippi at a cost of less than $10 per meal, including a drink and delivery charge.

Wagner said he gave FEMA the price based on his costs, “given the circumstances.” Those included leasing seven Baton Rouge restaurants to make the sandwiches, trucking them to the New Orleans area in refrigerated 18-wheelers and a surcharge on diesel fuel, he said.

“The press and the papers just hammered the government for not getting food to these people. …” Wagner said. “It was just a desperate situation.”

Under the three-page deal, signed in late September 2005 and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Mobile newspaper last week, the only listed requirement was that the lunches be “nonperishable.”

The contract specified that the meals were to be delivered to southwestern Louisiana parishes in support “of disaster relief efforts for Hurricane Rita,” but Wagner said the food was actually distributed in the New Orleans area, which had been devastated by Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005.

“We were just trying to respond to an opportunity to serve those people there,” he told the Press-Register.

FEMA released the contract about 13 months after the newspaper’s FOIA request for it.

Wagner earlier sued FEMA to keep the agreement — as well as two other hurricane-related contracts sought by the newspaper — from becoming public on the grounds that release of pricing details would help competitors in future contract bids.

Chief U.S. District Judge Ginny Granade of Mobile denied Clearbrook’s request for a preliminary injunction and he dropped his court petition.

Clearbrook, a small water services firm, has been the lead player in a consortium of companies that has won more than $192 million in FEMA business since Katrina struck, according to an agency report submitted to Congress last month.