Tags: Federal | Cruise: | $3500/Week

A Federal Cruise: $3500/Week

Thursday, 29 September 2005 12:00 AM

The federal government is forking out $3500 per week per person – or more - to house Katrina refugees on luxury cruise ships.

Word of that has created a hurricane of criticisim across talk radio, the blogosophere and even across both aisles of Congress.

These controversial cruise ships may soon replace former FEMA chief Michael Brown as the iconic face of mismanagement in the wake of the Katrina disaster.

At first, the government's $236 million deal with three Carnival cruise ships to house thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees appeared to be a smart and effective way to house thousands of Americans displaced by the powerful storm.

But now, the storm is well past, and with Congress busy at hearings to determine what went wrong, investigators are noting that the ships tapped to serve as temporary motels for the displaced are housing many fewer evacuees than FEMA originally planned.

Worse, many of the evacuees are avoiding their new floating quarters, complaining instead that onboard limits them from potential jobs and interacting with family and support groups.

The current government head count shows: 625 are aboard the Ecstasy, with a capacity for 2,544 passengers; 820 are living aboard the Sensation, with room for 2579; and The Holiday, presently docked in Mobile, Alabama has but 342 souls with full capacity of 1,486.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., did some math and noted Wednesday that if the ships were

But the math gets worse – for the taxpayer.

With the cruise ships less than a third full, the cost per passenger each week is north of $3500.

It would be cheaper for the government to house evacuees in a suite at the Waldorf.

For sure, the idea of using cruise ships seemed like a good and easy solution to the housing crisis precipitated by Katrina.

As it turns out FEMA had early indications that evacuees would not take well to the cruise ships. After getting negative reaction, the agency had been on the verge of ordering up yet a fourth cruise ship.

But days later FEMA formally announced that the whole "decision is on hold," owing to the fact that "evacuees are declining to move to cruise ships."

On Sept. 3, for instance, with Brown still at the helm, the chief was touting the fact that that his agency was "looking to secure cruise ships for housing support," and had identified 3 ships with a capacity to house 6,500. The initial holdup was not any lack of confidence in the plan but the then "need for approval to move them close to New Orleans."

On Sept. 4, Brown said FEMA was "pulling out the stops" on identifying available housing solutions for hurricane evacuees, this time touting a figure for floating lodging for about 8,000 persons.

"Two ships, with a capacity of about 2,600 passengers each, will be based in Galveston, Texas," a press release announced. "A third ship is scheduled to arrive in Mobile, Ala. on Thursday, Sept. 8, to begin lodging about 1,800 displaced persons."

Also on Sept 4, the agency was titillating the media with yet inchoate details about yet a fourth ship that would hold 1,000 occupants.

In these heady initial days, contracts were rushed through for three ships from Carnival Cruise Lines and one from Scotia Prince Lines. All four ships were placed under charter for six months.

But just four days later, the agency announced almost as a nonsequitur that the whole "decision is on hold."

Apparently, however, at that point – with contracts signed – it was too late to scrap the bootstrapped program. There were no follow up releases about any decisions on hold.

J. Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, noted that about 100,000 passengers had their vacations canceled to accommodate the government's needs.

And Carnival seems to be getting punished with negative publicity when they sought to be a good corporate citizen to help in the disaster relief.

Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz defended the cruise line: "In the end, we will make no additional money on this deal versus what we would have made by keeping these ships in service," she said. "That has been our position from the outset, and it has not changed."

But whether or not there is any windfall to Carnival, lawmakers like Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., are fuming.

"When the federal government would actually save millions of dollars by forgoing the status quo and actually sending evacuees on a luxurious six-month cruise it is time to rethink how we are conducting oversight," Obama said. "A short-term temporary solution has turned into a long-term, grossly overpriced sweetheart deal for a cruise line."

Meanwhile, it's not just the Carnival deal under the microscope. On Capitol Hill, yesterday, government auditors from six different federal agencies told a congressional committee that hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts were being investigated.

Indeed, more than 80 percent of the $1.5 billion of relief-related contracts already penned were awarded without bidding, or under circumstances of limited competition.

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The federal government is forking out $3500 per week per person - or more - to house Katrina refugees on luxury cruise ships. Word of that has created a hurricane of criticisim across talk radio, the blogosophere and even across both aisles of Congress. ...
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Thursday, 29 September 2005 12:00 AM
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