Thousands wait for roofs in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico releases records of deaths since Hurricane Maria
Fred Rasmussen via CNN

A dispute over a government contract has slowed efforts to build temporary roofs for people in hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, officials from the US Army Corps of Engineers told CNN.

The Army Corps runs a program called “Operation Blue Roof,” which provides and installs temporary roofs for people on the Caribbean island that was devastated by Hurricane Maria more than two months ago. Since then, the Army Corps has installed 17,672 roofs in Puerto Rico as part of that program — only 26% of the 66,906 applications for such roofing help.

In November, the Army Corps tried to hire additional contractors to double the pace of its work, according to John Vandiver, contracting officer at the Army Corps. Those awards were disputed, he said, and as a result additional construction efforts have not been able to continue.

The Army Corps is installing about 400 so-called blue roofs per day, said Kevin Slattery, mission manager for that team. But the Corps would like to double that capacity to 800, he said.

“We understand that people are living in tough situations, but it’s important for your readers to know we are working as hard as we can — 12-hour days, seven days a week,” said Patrick Loch, a spokesman for the Army Corps. “We continue to look for contractors to up our numbers.”

“Work is still being done. That original contract is still good, and blue roofs are still being installed in Puerto Rico,” Loch said. “It’s just that right now we’re not able to ramp that up.”

“We haven’t really seen anything like this before,” he added, referring to the devastation.

In a news release, the Army Corps said it awarded a $93 million “shared capacity contract” to Power & Instrumentation Services and Ceres Caribe “for additional support for (the) temporary roofing mission more commonly known as ‘Operation Blue Roof.'” That contract was awarded on November 21, according to the statement.

On December 4, the awarding of that contract was disputed by bidders who had not been given the federal business, Vandiver said.

Such a dispute is no reason to slow work in a disaster zone, said Steven Schooner, co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at the George Washington University Law School.

“If I was the head of the Corps of Engineers, I would have no qualms ensuring that whatever resources were necessary were on the ground,” he said. “You just don’t stop an emergency humanitarian effort based on a bid protest. That’s just not the way government works.”

The Army Corps is in the process of drafting legal justification for restarting the work amid the bidding dispute, said Vandiver. The contractors were able to start some work before the dispute was filed and work was stopped, he said. “We are hoping we get the authorization to proceed in the face of the complaint,” Vandiver said.

“Nobody did anything wrong. There’s no smoke,” said Loch. “It’s just the process of the awarding of contracts. We have to go through that process. It’s the way it works. When someone disputes the award, there’s a process, and we’re in that process right now.”

Power & Instrumentation Services and Ceres Caribe declined requests for comment.

Operation Blue Roof aims to provide temporary roofing help that is somewhat more substantial than a tarp but is designed to last only about 30 days. Thousands of people are waiting for help under that program. Separately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, administers a program to distribute tarps to Puerto Ricans.

That agency has provided about 116,000 tarps on the island since Hurricane Maria, according to Daniel Llargues, a spokesman for FEMA. Puerto Rican officials, as well as emergency management officials at the municipal level, distribute those supplies, he said.

In November, FEMA canceled tarp delivery contracts with Bronze Star, a company in Florida, over concerns that it would not be able to deliver supplies, according to an Associated Press investigation. Records confirm Bronze Star contracts were terminated.

“Bronze Star LLC defaulted of their contract requirements when they were unable to meet the required delivery date,” FEMA said in a email to CNN. “FEMA re-procured the contract and awarded a contract for the 475,000 blue tarps, the first delivery arrived in Puerto Rico on November 24, 2017.”

Conditions in Puerto Rico remain desperate on some parts of the island. More than 830 people are living in shelters, according to Puerto Rican government estimates. One month after the storm, CNN told the story of a woman who said she fell and broke her arm while trying to sweep rain out of her living room. She’d been living without a roof or tarp for weeks, she said.

“Just imagine, I step out of my bed and there’s water. I go to the bathroom and I have to bring an umbrella,” Carmen Rivera Rodriguez told CNN in October.

The Army Corps’ Blue Roof program was slower to get moving in Puerto Rico than usual in part because of power outages and problems at airports on the island, said Slattery. It’s also been difficult for workers to safely repair some roofs because of conditions on the island, he said.

Before the November contract was awarded, Ceres Environmental was given a $118 million contract to do initial work on the project, Loch, the Army Corps spokesman in Puerto Rico, said in an email to CNN. About 400 total workers went door to door asking people to sign up for the program, Slattery said. That process started on October 10, he said, 20 days after the storm, and stopped recently.

The first Blue Roof was installed in Puerto Rico on October 4, according to a news release.