FEMA spent $75 million to dock a half-empty cruise ship off Puerto Rico for 4 months

That's more than it spent on direct home rebuilding grants to citizens of the island in the same time frame.

A flooded street in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. island in September. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A flooded street in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. island in September. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The company behind Carnival cruises got more money from the federal government in connection with hurricanes that leveled much of Puerto Rico than the amount given to Puerto Ricans to rebuild their homes over the first four months of relief efforts.

When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needs to house support staffers providing relief to storm-torn islands, it seeks floating shelter for them to avoid exacerbating crowding on land. But in its rush to secure private-sector boat housing for relief workers, FEMA funneled $75 million to the Panama-based cruise line on a contract that billed the government more than twice as much per head as the company charges paying customers, contracts obtained by Miami-based radio station WLRN show.

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FEMA paid Carnival $75 million to rent the vessel Fascination from mid-October to early February. At that point, FEMA had disbursed less than $70 million in direct rebuilding funds to survivors of the storms on Puerto Rico, the station reports. “Only later in March — about a month and a half after the Carnival agreement expired — did FEMA dollars disbursed to residents catch up with the contract,” WLRN wrote.

The ugly optics of the Carnival boondoggle are exacerbated by news that FEMA used less than half of the onboard housing capacity it paid the company to secure. It is not the first time the agency has spent millions of dollars on half-empty cruise ships docked alongside still-devastated communities primarily home to people of color. After Hurricane Katrina, then-President George W. Bush’s FEMA head Michael Brown signed off on a $236 million contract with Carnival for a trio of ships that were never more than half full.

The Carnival scheme is only the latest example of what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism” in the wake of the storms that rocked the massive U.S. island 3.4 million Americans call home. The leaders of the island’s electrical utility initially inked a $300 million deal with Whitefish Energy to repair storm damage to the grid there, before pulling out after reporters noted that the firm has close ties to President Donald Trump’s donors and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Relief efforts in Puerto Rico have been grindingly slow and piecemeal. More than two months after the storm, half the island’s residents were still without power and one in ten couldn’t get safe water to drink. As of April, more than half a year on from Hurricane Maria, thousands of families remained in emergency short-term FEMA housing around the country. The deeply rooted but contractually informal community organizations that have sustained Puerto Rico’s poorest residents through decades of government neglect are now left to in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic limbo as officials in charge of housing relief dollars encounter needy people without traditional deeds and documents showing they live where they say they do.

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The Carnival deal is a drop in the bucket next to the sum total appropriated for Hurricane Maria relief efforts, which measure in the tens of billions. But where that money is slow and inconsistent in reaching those its intended to help, Carnival got paid with all the digital efficiency of any other corporate vendor doing business with the U.S. government.

The news of the half-empty $75 million cruise ship that FEMA called a “floating hotel” comes hard on the heels of a fresh estimate of the death toll from the storm. In stark contrast to the official count of just 64 fatalities, new expert estimates count more than 5,000 dead.

The day that new estimate broke, cable news networks covered the shocking Puerto Rico death toll estimate for a combined 30 minutes, according to Media Matters. They spent more than 10 hours talking about Roseanne Barr, who tragically lost her network sitcom for making the umpteenth racist joke of her long career.