© The Gazette
Iowa has spent nearly $250 million in federal funds to protect the state since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
While Homeland Security readiness grants made many Iowa communities safer, the grants also became a money grab that resulted in waste and poor accountability, Iowa officials said.
The Gazette tracked 24 purchases made with readiness grants to see how the equipment has been used in the state over the past 10 years. The month-long investigation revealed numerous examples of state officials not knowing what equipment was purchased, which becomes a problem if Iowa has a terrorist attack that requires use of the tools.
The findings include:
“When the Homeland Security grants first started out, everybody was applying for everything under the sun,” said David Zahn, a Cedar Rapids police investigator who served as the city’s public safety commissioner from 2000 to 2005. “Was it the best use of money? No.”
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The 50 states and U.S. territories together spent nearly $22 billion from 2002 to 2010 in Federal Emergency Management Agency preparedness grants, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Programs were created and money was spent amid the sorrow, violation and fear Americans felt after 9/11. No one knew if another attack was coming or whether terrorists might try something new, like releasing deadly gasses on the subway or poisoning the nation’s food supply.
Iowa has spent 88 percent of its FEMA allocation, which puts the state second behind only South Dakota in the share of its allocation to be drawn down over the years. This fits with the goals of Homeland Security, which has administered about $158 million in readiness grants in Iowa.
“Our goal is to get that money out into the hands of the folks that need it as soon as possible, while also meeting the requirements of the grant,” said John Benson, an Iowa Homeland Security spokesman.
Trying to learn exactly how Iowa spent its money is tricky. Readiness grants paid for everything from night-vision goggles, all-terrain vehicles and bomb robots to training, salaries and travel, according to grant records from 2002 to 2006 obtained by The Gazette through an open records request. Information from later grant years was not immediately available because those years’ grants have not been closed, Benson said.
FEMA also changed record-keeping requirements several times, making year-to-year comparisons difficult.
Homeland Security is required to track each item purchased with grant money for three years after the close of the grant year. Some items purchased with federal grants have slipped through the cracks.
Records from 2004 show the Department of Administrative Services spent $23,500 on two items: A “dissecting microscope with digital camera for on-site detection of trace evidence for explosives in bodies” and a “freezer (-80) freezer (-20) refrigerator PVC manifold for micro support equipment for bio and chemical terrorism at bio safety Level 3.”
“This will greatly benefit citizens located in the western portion of the state and dramatically reduce turnaround time on samples during a bio incident,” the department stated in its request before the 2004 purchase.
When The Gazette asked the Department of Administrative Services about the gear in July, spokesman Robert Bailey said: “Our procurement folks have not been able to find any trace of the freezer or dissecting microscope.”
He recommended checking with the Iowa National Guard, which sent the inquiry back to Homeland Security. After a week of checking records, Homeland Security directed The Gazette to the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Ankeny. The Iowa Department of Public Health, which oversees the State Medical Examiner and the State Hygienic Lab, told The Gazette the equipment was not housed in either department.
“This does not appear to be in our wheelhouse,” Public Health spokesman Don McCormick said.
John Kraemer, director of forensic operations for the State Medical Examiner's Office, said in an Aug. 17 email the Hygienic Lab did not have the equipment. “I had responded last week to our (public information officer) on this same item of equipment. It is not ours,” Kraemer wrote.
On Friday, a Homeland Security spokeswoman said the microscope and accompanying table had been found in the public health department.
“I am not certain why they were unable to confirm it was in their possession when you asked them a few weeks ago, but they do have it,” Lucinda Robertson said, adding that the microscope is used regularly.
Homeland Security did not respond to requests for documentation or photos of the equipment. The freezers and refrigerator are still missing.
Zahn said he thought the situation was suspicious. “You don’t have it one day and then presto, change-o, you do,” he said.
Another item originally reported as missing was a $92,000 Pelco Spectra III video camera. The Des Moines Police Department was listed as the project lead for the equipment.
“This cost is part of an investment that is intended to improve bomb squad response capabilities and capacities within the State of Iowa,” records state.
The Des Moines Bomb Squad, which responds to about 100 calls a year, told The Gazette last month it did not have the video camera. Officials discovered last week that they actually purchased eight bomb suits with that money, but a clerical error caused the video camera description to appear on grant records.
Benson acknowledged the poor documentation of these purchases could call into question the accuracy of records kept on thousands of other Homeland Security purchases.
“That is certainly a possibility,” he said.
Missing gear is a serious problem if Iowa faces a disaster where the equipment is needed, Benson said.
“We may need that capability this afternoon; we may need it tomorrow. We may need it three years down the road,” Benson said. “I personally would like to know where those pieces of equipment are at.”
The state has encouraged Iowa counties to buy multihazard equipment that can be used in response to everyday emergencies as well as to a terrorist attack, Benson said.
Delaware County bought nine decontamination showers for $4,200 in 2002. These portable showers made of PVC piping could be used to protect against chemical warfare, but also have been helpful when police want a meth lab suspect to shower before boarding an ambulance, said Mike Ryan, Delaware County Emergency Management coordinator.
Hancock County, in north-central Iowa, bought a Polaris Ranger four-wheel drive ATV for $9,000 in 2005 — despite concerns that it was a frivolous expense.
“I was very apprehensive because of how it looks,” said Andrew Buffington, county emergency management coordinator. “We have used that on so many occasions. Earlier this week, I got a call from a firefighter. They were looking for a teenage girl with an asthma attack who was tubing on the river. We brought that (ATV) out there, put her on the back and got her to EMS.”
Some equipment purchased in Iowa with Homeland Security grants is so specialized it can’t be used every day.
Iowa State University spent $80,660 of federal money in 2003 on alpha/gamma spectrometer systems used to identify radioactive material. The gear is a backup to similar systems used by the State Hygienic Lab in Coralville, said Steve Simpson, radiation safety officer in the ISU Environmental Health and Sciences Department.
“When there are emergency drills at Duane Arnold, we will track where potential radioactive material may go,” Simpson said, referring to the nuclear power plant in Palo.
The systems have not been used in a real emergency, however.
The Decorah Police Department purchased a $2,480 bomb-suppression blanket in 2003 that never has been deployed.
The five-foot square blanket made of bomb-resistant material, such as Kevlar, was on hand in the spring when police were called to Luther College for a ticking package. Officers didn’t need the blanket because they were able to verify the contents of the package: a musician’s metronome that had become unlatched.
The fact that some anti-terrorism equipment has not been used is a good thing, Benson said. “The very best-case scenario is that we bought this equipment, and we never had to use it for a single thing,” he said.
However, some gear purchased with Homeland Security money has proved to be a waste, officials said.
Decatur County, in south-central Iowa, spent more than $5,000 on a confined-space rescue kit, harnesses, pulleys and headlamps in 2005. The county also hired a trainer to teach a 15-member team how to do confined-space rescues, said Richard Erke, county emergency management coordinator.
“We never received a call or had to deploy,” Erke said.
Training money dried up, team members moved away. Erke’s now thinking about selling the gear to a community college.
Four hand-held explosive detection systems purchased by the Iowa Department of Transportation for $76,800 in 2003 were gradually phased out because they proved unreliable and difficult to calibrate, DOT spokeswoman Dena Gray-Fisher said.
A $9,600 trailer sits unused in Hancock County. The 12-foot trailer was designed for response to a variety of emergencies, including storms, fires or terrorism, but nearby counties bought bigger, more-specialized trailers that always are deployed for regional emergencies, Buffington said.
“As good as the grants were, we needed to coordinate more so we didn’t duplicate with counties nearby,” he said.
Iowa moved to a regional approach in 2004 as Homeland Security grants shrank from $30 million in fiscal 2003 to just under $16 million in fiscal 2006. Counties started to prioritize requests for six regions, and the state focused grants on regional response teams for explosives, urban search and rescue, incident management.
Iowa’s regional response teams have been mobilized in several recent natural disasters.
Sioux City’s Urban Search and Rescue Team sifted through debris in June 2008 when a tornado swept through the Little Sioux Scout Ranch in western Iowa, killing four teenagers and injuring more than 40 others. Earlier this summer, a diver from the Des Moines Bomb Squad opened a valve on a wellhead near the Skunk River by Oskaloosa, enabling the city to keep its drinking water despite flooding.
Iowa Homeland Security, which didn’t exist until after 9/11, has invented and reinvented itself in the past 10 years.
“Back when we started in 2002, it was a completely brand-new program with a completely new set of guidelines that most people didn’t understand and weren’t familiar with,” Benson said. “The process has evolved over the course of time.”
And it will continue evolving. Iowa has lost about 70 percent of its funding since 2002, and Benson expects readiness grants to dwindle further. Homeland Security is already trying to figure out which capabilities must be maintained and which ones could be let go. Eliminating some regional teams is a possibility, he said.
“If we are interested in keeping it going, where is the money going to come from?” Benson said.
The national anti-terrorism focus has shifted inward. President Obama announced last month a new strategy that commits the federal government to helping local communities spot radicalization in the United States. The idea is to stop homegrown terrorists.
The president makes clear the new initiative builds on the foundation of improved equipment, training and communication launched following 9/11.
“We will uphold the civil rights and civil liberties of every American,” President Obama said, “and we will go forward together, as Americans, knowing that our rich diversity of backgrounds and faiths makes us stronger and is a key goal to our national security.”
Tonight at 10 on KCRG-TV9, watch Erin Jordan’s report on tracking down Homeland Security equipment in Iowa.