Tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims remain without homes. The environment is devastated. People are disenfranchised. Financial resources, desperate residents are told, are scarce. But at least New Orleans has a Wal-Mart parking lot serving as a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center with perhaps the tightest security of any parking lot in the world. That’s thanks to the more than $30 million Washington has shelled out to the Blackwater USA security firm since its men deployed after Katrina hit. Under contract with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Federal Protective Service, Blackwater’s men are ostensibly protecting federal reconstruction projects for FEMA. Documents show that the government paid Blackwater $950 a day for each of its guards in the area. Interviewed by The Nation last September, several of the company’s guards stationed in New Orleans said they were being paid $350 a day. That would have left Blackwater with $600 per man, per day to cover lodging, ammo, other overhead–and profits.
Shortly after the hurricane hit, Blackwater “launched a helicopter and crew with no contract, no one paying us, that went down to New Orleans,” says company vice chairman Cofer Black. “We saved some 150 people that otherwise wouldn’t have been saved. And, as a result of that, we’ve had a very positive experience.” Indeed. It was only days after the company arrived that it started reeling in lucrative deals.
According to Blackwater’s government contracts, obtained by The Nation, from September 8 to September 30, 2005, Blackwater was paid $409,000 for providing fourteen guards and four vehicles to “protect the temporary morgue in Baton Rouge, LA.” That contract kicked off a hurricane boon for Blackwater. From September to the end of December 2005, the government paid Blackwater at least $33.3 million–well surpassing the amount of Blackwater’s contract to guard Ambassador Paul Bremer when he was head of the US occupation of Iraq. And the company has likely raked in much more in the hurricane zone. Exactly how much is unclear, as attempts to get information on Blackwater’s current contracts in New Orleans have been unsuccessful.
“We saw the costs, in terms of accountability and dollars, for this practice in Iraq, and now we are seeing it in New Orleans,” says Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky, who has been one of Blackwater’s few critics in Congress. “They have again given a sweetheart contract–without an open bidding process–to a company with close ties to the Administration.”
After The Nation exposed Blackwater’s operations in New Orleans this past fall [see “Blackwater Down,” October 10, 2005], Schakowsky and a handful of other Congress members raised questions about the scandal. They entered the report into the Congressional Record during hearings on Katrina and cited it in letters to DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner, who then began an inquiry. In letters to Congressional offices in February, Skinner defended the Blackwater deal, asserting that it was “appropriate” for the government to contract with the company. Skinner admitted that “the ongoing cost of the contract…is clearly very high” and then quietly dropped a bombshell: “It is expected that FEMA will require guard services on a relatively long-term basis (two to five years).” Two to five years? Already most of the 330 federally contracted private guards in the hurricane zone are working for Blackwater, according to the Washington Post. Another firm, DynCorp, is also trying to grab more of the action, offering its security services for less than $700 per day per guard.
The hurricane’s aftermath has ushered in the homecoming of the “war on terror,” a contract bonanza whereby companies can reap massive Iraq-like profits without leaving the country and at a minuscule fraction of the risk. To critics of the government’s handling of the hurricane, the message is clear.