A Recipe for Catastrophe: FEMA and Private Contractors

Readers of the Washington Monthly know about our concerns with the government’s addiction to contractors. The size of government has continuously grown over the past 50 years, but today the government employs the same number of civil servants as it did nearly half a century ago. The additional work has been picked up by private contractors.

Also of continuous concern to this magazine is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). For decades, we’ve reported on the agency and its path from being one of the most effective bureaucracies in the government to one of the most mismanaged. As others have noted, another meaning of FEMA’s initialism might be: Fix Everything My Ass!

Alas, both of these stories have come together and bestowed the following upon our nation:

“The Federal Emergency Management Agency shared personal addresses and banking information of more than 2 million U.S. disaster survivors in what the agency acknowledged Friday was a ‘major privacy incident.’ … Those affected included the victims of California wildfires in 2017 and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the report said. In a statement, Lizzie Litzow, FEMA’s press secretary, said, ‘FEMA provided more information than was necessary’ while transferring disaster survivor information to a contractor. … ‘We believe this oversharing has impacted approximately 2.5 million disaster survivors,’ said a Department of Homeland Security official who asked for anonymity to provide background information beyond the official FEMA statement. He said 1.8 million people had both their banking information and addresses revealed, and about 725,000 people had just their addresses shared.”

So far, there are no reports that this data over-sharing has led to the identity theft of disaster survivors. Still, mark this episode as yet another unfortunate moment for FEMA and for government contractors.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.