The Federal Emergency Management Agency this week auctioned off 34,496 unused meal kits that had been intended for victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, but were never distributed.
The agency faced criticism for its slow and inefficient response to the natural disaster, which left tens of thousands of people without power for several months and cut off large portions of the population from essentials like food, water, and medicine. As NBC News reported, the agency was left with tens of thousands of ready-to-eat meals that were never distributed, and they were auctioned off this week as they neared the expiration date.
The meals were priced at between $4.55 and $4.75, meaning they cost taxpayers more than $157,000 in total, but sold for a tiny fraction of the total price. After the initial bids came in for just over $500, the winning bid ended up being $10,000.
As the report noted, the Puerto Rico government determined that the meals were no longer needed during the recovery, and FEMA stopped distributing them. They had been stored in a warehouse for several months, and the expiration dates were quickly approaching.
"When meals are not used during the response phase, they are then stored in a FEMA warehouse," said FEMA spokesman Juan Rosado Reynes.
Before this week's auction, FEMA reached out to other disaster relief agencies, but none had a need for the meals. They were then put to auction.The explanation that the government could not find a use for the meals did not sit well with many in Puerto Rico. Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, who has frequently attacked the Trump administration for its response to the hurricanes, said the tens of thousands of unused meals were a sign of FEMA's poor response.
"It's an example of bureaucracy inefficiency," she said. "It reinforces the general feeling of the Puerto Rican people that FEMA did not do their job."
Some criticized the agency for its tiny return on the cost of the meals, selling them for less than a tenth of the original cost to taxpayers.
Others have also found inefficiencies in other aspects of FEMA's response to the crisis. A report from the New York Times found that much of the $1 billion that was spent on the hurricane response went to contractors that had steep markups and high overhead. Some of these contractors charged as much as $3,700 for generators and $666 for sinks, the report found.