Authorities in Arkansas responded to an open-government request with richly detailed spreadsheets listing the state’s homeland security grant purchases by community, number of equipment items, brand name, price and more. The individual Excel files are available for download below. Use the tabs contained in each one to see expenditures by grant year and program. Here are some of the things you’ll find by doing so: The city of Little Rock spent $13,000 on two Segway scooters, Fulton County purchased seven pairs of binoculars for $500 each and Benton County bought six night-vision devices costing $3,200 a piece. Hope, Ark., became a symbol of the federal government’s ineptitude in the catastrophic wake of Hurricane Katrina. Months after the storm struck land, more than 12,000 manufactured homes built as shelter for evacuees sat empty there on an airport tarmac. The Department of Homeland Security, it turned out, had spent $850 million purchasing the structures, on top of the hefty expense required to maintain them long term. During April of 2006, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee convened a special hearing in Hope and demanded to know what went wrong. Inspector General Richard Skinner, an independent overseer of the department, told policymakers at the meeting that FEMA’s ill-conceived disaster response resulted in far more units being bought than needed and that millions of additional dollars were wasted after clearing locations for the homes that turned out to be unsuitable due to contamination and other reasons. Making matters worse, Skinner said, the actual style of units purchased couldn’t be deployed in flood plains, meaning much of Louisiana and Mississippi. Some of the structures were damaged by contractors during delivery, and others began warping after being stored improperly. “The federal government, in particular FEMA, has received widespread criticism for a slow and ineffective response [to the 2005 hurricane season],” Skinner testified. “Unfortunately, as my testimony today articulates, much of the criticism is warranted.” The temporary housing mess after Katrina continued to be a problem years later, and Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas sponsored a bill in 2009 aimed at forcing FEMA to address the surplus. According to Pryor’s office, the agency continues to pay $125 million annually just to keep in place 120,000 manufactured houses, many of which are newer units purchased since Katrina for possible future disaster victims beyond what already existed. But the federal government estimated in June of 2008 that the overwhelming majority of them were actually unusable, either because they could not be equipped for habitation quickly enough, dangerously high formaldehyde levels existed in the units or substantial decay had set in. The FEMA Accountability Act proposed by Pryor would require that the agency sell, transfer or dispose of what it doesn’t plan to keep. Otherwise, our review of available audit documents covering anti-terrorism grant spending in Arkansas didn’t reveal significant findings in terms of how the funds were managed by state officials. But reviewing purchases using the files uploaded here still enables readers to see just what types of investments were made by their community. Are they reasonable and seem to suit the emergency-preparedness needs of your area? Have a look for yourself.
G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.More by G.W. Schulz