Blackout in Puerto Rico

After Maria, thousands on Puerto Rico waited months for a plastic roof

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018 

For 25 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has installed temporary plastic roofs on storm victims’ homes after disasters, part of a key emergency response program called “Operation: Blue Roof.”

But in the wake of the most destructive storm season on record, that system broke down. After Hurricane Maria, the blue roof program was riddled with problems, an investigation by FRONTLINE and NPR found, causing delays that left tens of thousands of Puerto Rican homes vulnerable to the elements for months. While the Army Corps provided thousands of blue roofs in the immediate aftermath of storms like Irma and Katrina, in the first 30 days after Maria, it finished just 439 — less than 1 percent of the total needed. Even three months after the storm, only half of the number of blue roofs needed were up in Puerto Rico.

Internal government documents and interviews with officials in the Army Corps, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, disaster experts and contractors in Puerto Rico illustrate that behind the slow pace of the Puerto Rico program were two key issues: shortages of essential supplies and bureaucratic problems with contracting. Together, these lapses reveal a fundamental lack of preparation for an event the size and scope of Hurricane Maria, according to disaster experts who spoke to FRONTLINE and NPR for the documentary Blackout in Puerto Rico.

“Homes that were salvageable are ruined now. They’re beyond repair,” said Alice Thomas, a disaster response expert with Refugees International, which looked into the delays in temporary shelter programs in Puerto Rico. “It’s an emergency. You need a roof over your head, and you need it now.”

Slower that Katrina

By almost any measure, Hurricane Maria was an unprecedented storm. But the Army Corps had vast experience installing temporary roofs after other devastating disasters, where it had met the demands for blue roofs at a far faster clip.

After Hurricane Katrina – the Corps’ largest blue roof mission ever – the agency was able to install 107,344 in 100 days. After Maria, it installed just 30,000 blue roofs in the first 100 days, half of what was needed.

The Corps had even performed better in Puerto Rico. After the island’s last major hurricane, Georges, in 1998, the Corps and its 44 contractors completed approximately 30,000 roofs within 37 days of the storm.

Even during the 2017 storm season, the Army Corps program in Florida after Irma was 10 times faster in the first 30 days, where it installed more than 4,500 blue roofs.

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, head of the Army Corps, told FRONTLINE and NPR that the program, which the Corps runs on behalf of FEMA, went as fast as it could given the historic challenges that existed after Maria, but acknowledged that the agency should move faster and rethink it’s planning.

“There’s always going to be some degree of a delay. The question is, how can we speed it up, to have quicker roofs and more roofs put into the first couple months?” Semonite said. “We want to be faster … But there’s some mechanics of a storm. Mother Nature gets a vote here. In Puerto Rico, Mother Nature got a big, big vote.”

Lack of Supplies

However, the initial delays after Maria weren’t caused solely by the storm but also from a lack of supplies.

It would take two weeks from the day Maria hit before a single blue roof was completed in Puerto Rico. That’s because, according to internal FEMA documents, when Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, FEMA had none of the sturdy tarp material it needed on the island.

“Almost all the warehouses were empty. So when we hit, the amount of available supplies … blue roof material, whatever it might be, were just not there to be able to respond in an effort that would have probably been something that could have got us more of a jump-start,” Semonite said.

He added that the sheeting material in Puerto Rico had just been moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma, which hit the archipelago hard. As a result, documents show, the first shipment of plastic sheeting, 1,200 rolls, didn’t arrive in Puerto Rico until Oct. 3.

Even then, there were further delays. A week after sheeting first arrived on the island, FEMA awarded a $9.2 million contract for additional plastic sheeting to a Florida-based company called Bronze Star, which had no disaster experience and had only formed that August. A month later, FEMA cancelled the contract after the company failed to deliver any sheeting, forcing the agency to scramble in search of a new supplier.

A Slow Ramp Up

As sheeting trickled in, the Corps came up against new hurdles with the firm it had contracted with to help build the roofs themselves.

Before Maria, it had lined up an advance contract with a disaster recovery firm called Ceres Environmental Services Inc. As part of its contract, the Minnesota-based company was required to be ready to deploy to Puerto Rico to install blue roofs in the event of a disaster. These kinds of contracts were a key requirement of the 2006 Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which attempted to address the failures of coordination and preparation that led to the bungled federal response after Katrina.

Ceres had years of experience with blue roofs, including in Puerto Rico, where it was one of the contractors on the ground after Hurricane Georges in 1998. But after Maria, federal data show that Ceres did not meet its initial contract requirements.

Ceres began installing blue roofs in Puerto Rico on Oct. 4, and according to contracting documents, was given 10 days to ramp up to a minimum of 200 blue roof installations a day. By Oct. 13, Ceres was supposed to put up at least 120 roofs a day. That day it only managed 90, leading the Army Corps to warn Ceres it would face penalties if it did not improve its performance. The company submitted a plan to fix its installation rate.

Ceres officials declined to be interviewed, but in a response to written questions said that, “despite the destruction to roofs and the infrastructure affecting the speed of the recovery, Ceres still met or exceeded its contract requirements.” The Army Corps never sought damages for its initial failure to meet the installation rate.

Ceres said the sheer devastation of the storm made travel in the immediate aftermath difficult. It also said that part of the early challenges were due to a change in the scope of work for the blue roof program in Puerto Rico. In most storms, severely damaged homes cannot have a blue roof. But because Maria was so destructive, FEMA changed the rules to include severely damaged properties. The result, Ceres wrote, was that “these severely damaged roofs required up to four times the crew hours to complete.”

But several former workers for Ceres said delays were also exacerbated by the company’s struggles to retain workers hired by local subcontractors in Puerto Rico.

One of those former subcontractors, Ponce-based Venegas Construction, worked for Ceres for about a week before quitting. Emilio R. Venegas, vice president of the firm, said Ceres provided limited training and paid subcontractors a rate that barely covered costs.

Ceres Environmental disputed Venegas’ characterization of its training program, saying its subcontractors were, “supported by our Management Team with experience from other Corps blue roof contracts.” It added that, “Ceres contractors were paid commensurate with the rates received by Ceres to install the roofs.”

By Oct. 19, Ceres was producing the required 200 roofs a day, but even at the pace spelled out in its contract, it would take nearly a year for them to finish the roughly 60,000 roofs needed on Puerto Rico. Things were improving, but not fast enough to meet demand. The program needed more workers.

Semonite said the Army Corps is deciding whether to make changes to its contracting practices going forward.

“We’re looking at this really hard to say, ‘Is there a way we can incentivize our contractor in the next storm?’” he said. “We work for FEMA, so this is a partnership … We’re in those dialogues right now, so if a contractor hits the ground, how can we get the curve of implementation much, much quicker?”

FEMA’s top official in Puerto Rico, Mike Byrne, acknowledged in an interview with FRONTLINE and NPR that there had been “challenges” with the program and said the agency will evaluate its performance after the recovery.

“We had issues with some of the labor that they were doing,” Byrne said. “We had issues about the challenge of getting materials into some of these remote areas. All of this made it a challenge. But again, the important thing to realize is we were doing, and we were executing to the maximum that we were capable in terms of the resources that we had available to do that.”

Local Bidders

The Army Corps would eventually get more workers – but the process would take months, thanks in part to a dispute over government contracts that resulted in a temporary work stoppage.

After Hurricane Georges, the Corps had 44 contractors on the ground within weeks. After Maria, it had one and then took more than six weeks to open up a $93 million bid for two additional local contractors to help with the blue roof program.

Those contracts were targeted at local companies as part of efforts to reinvigorate the economy in areas impacted by the storm.

On Nov. 21, the Corps awarded the contracts to two bidders: a Puerto Rican firm called Power & Instrumentation Services, and another company called Ceres Caribe Inc. The Army Corps said that adding these two companies would “bring our capability up to around 1,000 roofs a day.” By this point, Ceres Environmental was putting up 400 roofs a day, bringing its total number of installations to about 11,000.

Venegas said that when he saw the award, he was puzzled. He had never heard of Ceres Caribe, but was struck by the name’s similarity to Ceres Environmental from Minnesota.

He pulled the company’s registration documents and found that Ceres Caribe was first registered in Puerto Rico in 1999. The documents listed its founder as David McIntyre, the founder of Ceres Environmental.

The federal contracting database shows that Ceres Caribe won at least 15 federal contracts between 2004 and 2009 worth more than $42 million for various construction jobs. But by 2011, the company’s annual report showed that it had no income or assets. In 2013 and 2014, Ceres Caribe failed to file annual reports or pay dues to the government, triggering warnings from the Puerto Rican State Department and a subsequent suspension of its registration. The company, Venegas found, had only renewed its registration three days after the Corps opened up the bidding process. According to registration documents, McIntyre is still the director and president.

“The bid was set aside for local companies. We thought that perhaps somebody in the Corps had made a mistake, and we submitted a protest to let them know about our opinion,” Venegas said.

Another Puerto Rican company, RBC Construction Corp., also protested. In response, the Army Corps temporarily halted the two contracts, but Ceres Environmental, the company with the original contract, kept working.

McIntyre was not available for an interview, but Rick Good, senior project manager for Ceres Caribe, said the company was, “a standalone corporation,” with separate management from Ceres Environmental, but that the two were owned by McIntyre. He said the company’s work after Maria was “of the highest quality” and that 90 percent of those employed on the project were locals.

The Army Corps said Ceres Caribe was evaluated as a separate company because as “a subsidiary of Ceres Environmental, they are considered two legally independent companies.” The Corps called the company’s bid proposal “one of two that were the best value to the Government.”

Ceres Environmental wrote that the new contract “was properly awarded.” It added, “Ceres Caribe, Inc. has over the years contributed greatly to the local economy and provided employment and training to Puerto Rican and other employees.”

Venegas said the Corps encouraged him to drop his protest in exchange for a contract of his own. He said he agreed. The Corps said his award came after “the number of roof requests increased.”

The protest from RBC Construction was dismissed on technical grounds. With the contracting dispute over, the Corps ended the work stoppage after eight days.

The additional workers helped. By Dec. 30, the Army Corps had put on 30,000 temporary roofs. Five days later, it reached its goal of 1,000 roofs a day.

By then, the program had helped just half of those approved for a temporary roof  –something Hector Pesquera, Puerto Rico’s secretary for public safety and the commonwealth’s point person for the emergency response after Maria, noted critically in an internal report prepared for the governor.

The report said that the problems in the program stemmed from “bureaucratic delays associated with mobilizing personnel, a lack of pre-planning for this type of mission in Puerto Rico and the intricacies and unacceptable timelines associated with federal procurement actions.”

“The people of Puerto Rico deserve to have services established as fast as possible,” said Semonite. “I think we need to look as a country, what kind of response do we need to give in remote areas, and if we … need to put a lot more capability pre-storm, this is going to come at a cost.”

Just about six months to the day that Maria hit, the contractors working for the Corps finished the final blue roof in Puerto Rico – number 59,469. And now, more than seven months after Maria, thousands are still waiting for permanent repairs.

FRONTLINE's Rick Young, IRW's filmmaker-in-residence, and NPR’s Laura Sullivan contributed to this report.