BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- A FEMA contract to house Katrina evacuees on cruise ships, roundly blasted as exorbitant government spending, is currently costing U.S. taxpayers substantially more per person than some of its harshest critics estimated -- nearly $250 per person per night, according to figures obtained by MSNBC.com.
At that rate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would spend more than $175,000 for each family of four that lives for six months aboard one of the three ships provided under the $236 million contract with Carnival Cruise Lines. Room service also is included in that price tag -- three meals a day and snacks.
FEMA says it cannot calculate the precise costs per person for the floating hotels because it does not track occupancy of the ships in that fashion. The agency says it knows only how many cabins are occupied on the Ecstasy and Sensation, docked in New Orleans, and the Holiday, docked in Pascagoula, Miss., not how many people are living in each cabin.
“To be honest with you, I really don’t know,” FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said in response to repeated requests for a head count. Nor does anyone else in the federal government, said the Washington, D.C.-based Andrews, who said she could not get the figures “unless I went on board and knocked on doors.”
But it took Carnival Cruises Lines just two hours to provide the current headcount when asked by MSNBC.com. According to Carnival public relations coordinator Irene Liu, on Wednesday there were 5,370 evacuees living aboard the three ships, 2,418 on the Ecstasy, 1,996 on the Sensation and 956 on the Holiday.
That count is well below the 7,000-passenger combined capacity for the three ships, 2,600 each for the Ecstasy and Sensation and 1,800 for the Holiday.
Cost expected to keep climbing
MSNBC.com arrived at the current $244 per-night, per-person cost of the cruise ship housing by dividing the cost of the contract by the current number of inhabitants. With FEMA’s own releases showing a steady decline in occupancy of the cruise ships since late November, that cost is presumably rising and will continue to do so until the contract expires in early March.
The counting of occupied cabins rather than evacuees is a departure from FEMA’s initial publicity about the use of the ships. In a Sept. 4 press release, then-FEMA Director Michael Brown spoke of the Sensation and the Ecstasy, originally sent to Galveston, Texas, as having room for “about 2,600 passengers each” and the Holiday, first docked in Mobile, Ala., as providing space for “about 1,800 displaced persons.” Brown later resigned his job amid charges of incompetence.
The switch from counting evacuees to cabins occurred because “in some cabins, every single bed is filled and in other cabins it is a single city worker,” Andrews said. “Those ships are filled to capacity.” So is a fourth ship owned by a different cruise line and docked in St. Bernard’s Parish, she said.
Andrews went on to say that “if the ships are filled to capacity, it’s $190 per night” per person. When asked how FEMA could calculate a per-person, per-night cost without knowing how many people were on the ships, Andrews acknowledged it is not possible.
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Cost questions have dogged the Carnival contract since it first became public. Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., called it a “grossly overpriced sweetheart deal.” Coburn aides noted that even with the ships housing their full 7,000-passenger capacity, the weekly cost for each person was more than double the price of some seven-day Caribbean cruises.
In seeking a congressional probe of the contract’s “grossly over-inflated costs,” Mississippi Rep. Bennie G. Thompson noted at the time that housing a family of four on one of the ships for six months might cost as much as $120,000, the price of a single-family home “in many of the areas struck by the hurricane.”
'It is pitiful'
Told this week by MSNBC.com that it might cost far more than that, Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security, said: “It is pitiful that FEMA's only stable housing program has consisted of overpaying for cruise ships that may not be fully occupied. … Sadly, that money could have gone to the tens of thousands living in tents and travel trailers this holiday season."
Andrews, the FEMA spokeswoman, defended the contract as the only way “to house people in areas where all of the housing had been wiped out. …Congressman Thompson, of all people, would understand the need to have some emergency housing in an area where the entire housing stock was wiped out.”
Andrews said there is not a cost-effective way in which the government can get out of the contract before it’s completed but “when the term of the contract is up, we’ll find other places for the people to go.”
The cruise ship shelter also is popular with many of those living on board the luxury liners.
Waveland, Miss., resident Edna Summers had nothing but praise for the program. She spent time on the Holiday, traveling with it when it sailed from Mobile to Pascagoula.
"We had maids cleaning the room," she told MSNBC.com. "They cooked. I didn't have to do anything but take a shower and eat."
Summers said she also received FEMA assistance on the boat, including help in getting a replacement copy of her birth certificate and preparing for the high school equivalency exam. "It was a great experience because I never had anything like that," she said.
Cruise line defends break-even deal
Carnival representatives also defend the deal as one in which the company will make no more money than it would have if the ships were conducting their normal tourist cruises.
The Miami-based company, which operates a total of 79 ships, reported last week that its fourth-quarter profits were up 20 percent.
“They’re not hurting at all,” said Jennifer Gore, the Democrats’ communications director for the Committee on Homeland Security.
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