When the definitive story of the confrontation between Hurricane Katrina and the U.S. government is told, one long, tragicomic chapter...

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WASHINGTON — When the definitive story of the confrontation between Hurricane Katrina and the U.S. government is told, one long, tragicomic chapter should be reserved for the odyssey of the ice.

Ninety-one thousand tons of ice cubes, that is, intended to cool food, medicine and sweltering victims of the storm. The ice would cost taxpayers more than $100 million, and most of it never would be delivered.

The somewhat befuddled heroes of the tale will be truckers such as Mark Kostinec, who was dropping a load of beef in Canton, Ohio, on Sept. 2 when his dispatcher called with an urgent job: Pick up 20 tons of ice in Greenville, Pa., and take it to Carthage, Mo., a staging area for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

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Kostinec, 40, a driver for Universe Truck Lines of Omaha, Neb., was happy to help with the crisis. But at Carthage, instead of unloading, he was told to take his 2,000 bags of ice on to Montgomery, Ala.

After a day and a half in Montgomery, he was sent to Camp Shelby, in Mississippi. On Sept. 8, he was waved onward to Selma, Ala. And he was redirected two days later to Emporia, Va., along with scores of other frustrated drivers who had been following similarly circuitous routes.

Kostinec sat for an entire week at Emporia, his trailer burning fuel around the clock to keep the ice frozen, as FEMA officials studied whether supplies originally purchased for Katrina might be used for Hurricane Ophelia. In the end, only three of about 150 ice trucks were sent to North Carolina, he said. So Kostinec on Sept. 17 headed to Fremont, Neb., where he unloaded his ice into a government-rented storage freezer the next day.

“I dragged that ice around for 4,100 miles, and it never got used,” Kostinec said. He was pleased to earn $4,500, double his usual paycheck. He was perplexed, however, by the government’s apparent bungling.

“They didn’t seem to know how much ice they were buying and how much they were using,” he said. “All the truckers said the money was good, but we were upset about not being able to help.”

“Wasteful spending”

Kostinec’s government-ordered meandering was not unusual. Partly because of the mass evacuation forced by the hurricane, and partly because of what an inspector general’s report last week called a broken system for tracking goods, FEMA ordered far more ice than could be distributed to people who needed it.

Over about a week after Katrina, FEMA ordered 211 million pounds of ice, said Rob Holland, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which buys the ice that FEMA requests under a contract with IAP Worldwide Services of Cape Canaveral, Fla. The company won the contract in competitive bidding in 2002, Holland said.

Under the contract, the government pays about $12,000 for a 20-ton truckload of ice, delivered to its original destination. If the ice is moved farther, the price is $2.60 a mile, and a day of waiting costs up to $900, Holland said.

Those numbers add up fast, and reports such as Kostinec’s have stirred concern on Capitol Hill, as more wearying evidence of the incoherent response to the catastrophe.

At a hearing Wednesday, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, expressed astonishment that many truckloads of ice had ended up in storage in her state, 1,600 miles from the Katrina damage zone, apparently because the storage contractor, AmeriCold Logistics, had run out of space farther south.

“The American taxpayers, and especially the Katrina victims, cannot endure this kind of wasteful spending,” Collins said.

Asked about trips such as Kostinec’s, Nicol Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman, said: “He was put on call for a need and the need was not realized, so he went home. Any reasonable person recognizes the fact that it makes sense to prepare for the worst, hope for the best and place your resources where they may be needed.”

Unlike an ordinary hurricane, which may leave a large population in still-habitable housing but without power, Katrina destroyed neighborhoods and led to unprecedented evacuation, Andrews said.

“The population we ordered the ice for had been dispersed,” she said, “which is good, because they are out of harm’s way.”

“FEMA can’t win”

Andrews said FEMA realized it must improve its monitoring of essential items. The new report by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general says million of dollars of ice was left unused after last year’s hurricanes in Florida because FEMA had “no automated way to coordinate quantities of commodities with the people available to accept and distribute them.”

Some people, including former FEMA director Michael Brown, have questioned why the agency spends so much money moving ice.

“I feebly attempted to get FEMA out of the business of ice,” Brown told a House panel last week. “I don’t think that’s a federal government responsibility to provide ice to keep my hamburger meat in my freezer or refrigerator fresh.”

But ice, even Brown agreed, at times plays a critical role, such as helping keep hospital patients alive. After Katrina hit, the air conditioning at Meadowcrest Hospital in Gretna, La., went out and temperatures inside climbed into the 90s.

“Physicians and staff attempted to cool patients by placing ice in front of fans,” Phillip Sowa, the hospital’s chief executive, wrote in an online account of the ordeal.

Archie Harris, a Wilmington, N.C., ice merchant who serves as disaster-preparedness chairman for the International Packaged Ice Association, said that, while FEMA had been criticized mostly as being underprepared, the agency was being criticized for being overprepared on the ice question.

“FEMA can’t win right now,” Harris said. “Can you imagine what people would say if they’d run out of ice?”

Doing “a lot of good”

Not all of the ice-delivery trips, by an estimated 4,000 drivers, ended in frustration. Mike Snyder, a truck driver from Berwick, Pa., took an excruciating journey that started Sept. 16 in Allentown, Pa., and did not end until two weeks later, on Friday, in Tarkington Prairie, Texas.

The electricity was out in the community, hit by Hurricane Rita. When Snyder unloaded his ice at a church, residents were overjoyed. “I felt like I did a lot of good,” he said.

Other truckers felt differently.

Having almost lost his Florida home to a hurricane last year, Jeff Henderson was eager to help when he heard that FEMA needed truckers to carry ice. He drove at his expense to Wisconsin to collect a 20-ton load and delivered it to the Carthage staging area.

Henderson, too, was sent across the South: Meridian, Miss.; Selma; Memphis, Tenn.; where he waited five days and then delivered his ice to storage.

“I can’t understand what happened,” he said. “The government’s the only customer that plays around like that.”

Mike Hohnstein, a dispatcher in Omaha, sent a truckload out of Dubuque, Iowa, to Meridian. From there, the driver was sent to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, to Columbia, S.C., and finally to Cumberland, Md., where he bought a lawn chair and waited for six days.

Ten days after he started, the driver was told to take the ice to storage in Bettendorf, Iowa, Hohnstein said. The truck had traveled 3,282 miles, but not a cube of ice had reached a hurricane victim.

“Well,” Hohnstein said, “the driver got to see the country.”

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