In the wake of Hurricane Harvey hitting Texas in August, Emily Schmall in Fort Worth, Texas, and Michael Sisak in Philadelphia teamed up to report exclusively that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had sold off scores of 2017-model trailers with little to no damage in the days leading up to the storm. Their reporting had an immediate impact: FEMA said it had halted the auctions and would evaluate their stock to see if any units could be used for Harvey victims.
Sisak and Schmall turned a run-of-the-mill follow-up into a pointed look at FEMA waste.
Fast forward to November, when Sisak noticed the auctions had resumed. Working with Central Desk editor Jeff McMurray, Sisak and Schmall turned what could have been a run-of-the-mill follow-up into a pointed look at government waste, showing how FEMA was selling gently used trailers for pennies on the dollar rather than making them available for disaster victims.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, they obtained sales data from the General Services Administration, the federal office that manages government property. They then cross-referenced that data with an auction listings database they created to confirm that trailers listed on Craigslist were bought at auction, their sales prices and damage reports.
They were able to pin down FEMA on how much the agency spends per trailer and its unofficial policy of auctioning trailers off after a single 18-month lease.
The story was further strengthened by government contract records that showed FEMA has awarded manufacturers $278 million for brand-new trailers, some of which won’t be delivered until next month – six months after Harvey hit.
The reporting went beyond the numbers and contracts. It included an interview with a woman whose family had lived in a tent on someone’s private land in Rockport, Texas, and said she would have been thrilled to have a used FEMA trailer, never mind the buckled trim.
The story got excellent play, both in and outside of Texas. It appeared on more than two dozen front pages across the country, including with the all-caps headline “One and Done” above the fold in the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
For resourceful reporting that broke new ground, Schmall and Sisak share this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.