Business Of Disaster: Local Recovery Programs Struggle To Help Homeowners

Nick and Diane Camerada stand inside their home on Staten Island, N.Y. During Superstorm Sandy, the Cameradas had water up to the second floor of their home. More than three years later, they are still living in a home that is only partially renovated while continuing to deal with bureaucratic nightmares.

Nick and Diane Camerada stand inside their home on Staten Island, N.Y. During Superstorm Sandy, the Cameradas had water up to the second floor of their home. More than three years later, they are still living in a home that is only partially renovated while continuing to deal with bureaucratic nightmares. Bryan Thomas for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Bryan Thomas for NPR

This story is Part 2 of a two-part series. See our first piece about insurance firms that profited $400 million after Superstorm Sandy here.

The night of Superstorm Sandy, Nick and Diane Camerada decided not to evacuate. Instead, they stayed with their four boys in their Staten Island, N.Y., home. In 20 years, their house had never flooded.

They thought: How bad could it be?

But that night in October 2012, the water pooled up through the floor.

“You see the water rising and you wonder if it’s ever going to stop,” Diane Camerada says.

They lost everything on the first floor of their home. “We looked at each other, we had nothing,” Diane said.

Two weeks later, President Obama toured their neighborhood to see the devastation.

“He came right to me,” Diane Camerada remembers.

President Obama talks with Diane and Nick Camerada (center) during a walking tour of Superstorm Sandy storm damage on Staten Island, N.Y., on Nov. 15, 2012.

President Obama talks with Diane and Nick Camerada (center) during a walking tour of Superstorm Sandy storm damage on Staten Island, N.Y., on Nov. 15, 2012. Pete Souza/White House hide caption

toggle caption Pete Souza/White House

President Obama told the couple, “My commitment to you is I’m going to stay on it.”

Diane Camerada responded: “Just don’t forget about us.”

Three years later, her first floor is still a wreck, and down to the studs. She digs out a copy of a newspaper, with a picture of her talking to the president.

“I want to take this and put it in a manila envelope,” she says. “And I want to mail it to him and say, ‘Remember me?’ Because we’re still suffering down here. And it’s not just me. It’s a lot of my neighbors, too.”

Scientists say powerful storms are becoming more frequent and more intense. Yet there’s no guidebook or national plan for how states and communities are supposed to recover.

What the country does have is money. Taxpayers sent New York and New Jersey $8 billion after Superstorm Sandy through federal recovery programs.

But driving around some of the hardest-hit areas, it’s difficult to see where all that money went.

Garbage is piled up on the street in the New Dorp neighborhood of Staten Island, N.Y., on Nov. 4, 2012, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

Garbage is piled up on the street in the New Dorp neighborhood of Staten Island, N.Y., on Nov. 4, 2012, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Seth Wenig/AP hide caption

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NPR and the PBS series Frontline have spent the past year investigating the business of disaster and found that millions of taxpayer dollars have gone to waste, mired in bureaucracy and red tape.

New York City, like most places after a disaster, built its recovery program from scratch. And in New York, like those other places across the country, those efforts have not been very effective.

On a recent morning, Tommy Consulo, a community leader who is helping people navigate the rebuilding process in Staten Island, is driving around some of the neighborhoods closest to the water.

Block after block, dozens of homes look like they did three years ago — boarded up and abandoned. Other homes have been knocked down and their lots are empty. And still others have been elevated to avoid future flooding.

“This is New York,” Consulo says, looking out the window. “If we can’t handle a situation like this any better than the way we handled this one, the rest of the country’s in trouble.”

He pulls around a corner and points to a rickety one-story bungalow no bigger than a trailer home. It’s now on stilts — 15 feet in the air and taller than any house on the street.

“See how high it’s going to be?” he says in almost disbelief. “That’s the height you gotta be.”

Residents call this the “jack-o-lantern effect,” because the lines of homes look like the teeth of a smiling pumpkin on Halloween.

This is the product of multiple city, state and federal programs, which each encourage residents to do different things: renovate, elevate their homes or sell to the state so the house can be leveled.

“Ninety percent of the community will have disappeared, and there will be a handful of homes that will try to weather the next storm,” says Frank Moszczynski, a construction manager for several projects in the area. He decided to take a buyout from a state program, so his own nearby house is now boarded up.

“I would definitely move back here if I had the chance,” he says.

If you’re thinking no single agency or organization seems to have a plan for this neighborhood, Staten Island or along this entire coastal area, Consulo and Moszczynski say, you’re right. Homeowners are left with a dizzying array of directives and programs.

The men say residents have to navigate at least five local, state and federal agencies when figuring out what to do with their homes and many don’t know how to do that.

“People don’t know because they don’t understand that process, and you know what?” Moszczynski asks. “It’s a very difficult process.”

For as much as homeowners may not know their way around recovery programs, the government has trouble, too.

A sign for the Build It Back program hangs on the plywood fence of a construction site on Staten Island, N.Y.

A sign for the Build It Back program hangs on the plywood fence of a construction site on Staten Island, N.Y. Bryan Thomas for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Bryan Thomas for NPR

New York City created Build It Back, a program using federal dollars. At first, the city hired private contractors to run it.

The results weren’t good, and during the first year of the program, there were problems with mismanagement, overbilling and incompetence, according to government auditors.

The city audit found that Build It Back paid its workers little more than minimum wage — but then charged the city a total fee that was based on rates of $40 to $100 an hour for those same jobs. It also said that in other instances, contractors billed the city $200,000 monthly retainers at a time when few homeowners were getting help.

In an area where more than 300,000 homes were affected, taxpayers will have spent $1.7 billion on a program that is planning to elevate 2,000 homes and help renovate 7,000 others by the end of the year.

Amy Peterson was brought in to overhaul Build It Back and says homes are now being elevated. She also says three-quarters of the people in the program have either received a check for renovations or had construction started. Peterson says she is optimistic.

Amy Peterson now runs the Build It Back program in New York City. She says she is optimistic about the program.

Amy Peterson now runs the Build It Back program in New York City. She says she is optimistic about the program. Screenshot for Frontline (PBS) hide caption

toggle caption Screenshot for Frontline (PBS)

“It’s going really well,” she says. “And we have worked really hard to help these communities recover. We really overhauled the program to make it work for homeowners so they can get where they want to be.”

The Cameradas haven’t seen those results yet. They signed up for Build It Back not long after they met President Obama.

But they say program officials told them they would have to close old building permits from a home renovation in 2006 before Build It Back would elevate their home. To do that, the Cameradas said they would have to renovate their first floor, knowing it would get ripped out if the house got elevated.

“The floor, the walls, the doors, everything is going to be thrown away so that the house can be lifted and rebuilt,” Diane said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Diane Camerada stands inside her home on Staten Island, N.Y. She has been frustrated with the long bureaucratic process with the Build It Back program.

Diane Camerada stands inside her home on Staten Island, N.Y. She has been frustrated with the long bureaucratic process with the Build It Back program. Bryan Thomas for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Bryan Thomas for NPR

A couple of months ago, the Cameradas went ahead and did that renovation. They’re still waiting for their home to be elevated.

“It’s not only government being irresponsible,” says Jim Oddo, the Staten Island borough president. “It’s an embarrassment to all of us as professionals. We’re not making widgets. This is not like we screwed up the conveyor belt. These are people.”

Oddo hadn’t heard about the Cameradas’ situation. But he started listing other examples of homeowners facing confusing decisions and delays that lasted years.

“Oh my God, where do you start? Let’s take a home that’s worth $80,000 and let’s pour $600,000 into it to elevate it and rehab it,” he says shaking his head in disbelief. “That’s one case that happened.”

Following Superstorm Sandy, Nicole Chati received $600,000 to repair her home. Now, it sits on stilts that rise above the other homes in the neighborhood that have yet to be raised.

Following Superstorm Sandy, Nicole Chati received $600,000 to repair her home. Now, it sits on stilts that rise above the other homes in the neighborhood that have yet to be raised. Bryan Thomas for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Bryan Thomas for NPR

The house is a one-story bungalow now elevated on Topping Road. Build It Back officials acknowledge they spent $600,000, but they say it was an outlier that ran into complications.

Homeowners here say New York had too many agencies with different ideas, that it didn’t know how to run a housing recovery program, and that it has not been able to decide on the future of its coastal areas.

But the problem for the rest of the county is that few other places seem to know how to do it better.

Allegations of mismanagement and years-long delays in programs have also dogged New Jersey; Louisiana had troubles after Hurricane Katrina, Texas after Hurricane Ike; and Florida, after Hurricanes Frances and Andrew.

“The way that the Congress provides the money, they want us to let the local government make those decisions,” says Marion McFadden, the deputy assistant secretary for grant programs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A recently elevated home in Staten Island, N.Y.

A recently elevated home in Staten Island, N.Y. Bryan Thomas for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Bryan Thomas for NPR

Asked if she thinks she or the program could have provided more oversight, she says: “Is there a better way of doing this? I hope that there is, or that we can all work together to do this way better, because that’s what people are counting on the federal government for.”

Brad Gair, one of New York City’s disaster recovery managers, says without hard choices about how and where to rebuild, or even whether to rebuild, states and cities will keep reinventing a broken wheel — despite their best efforts.

“We’re not in a good place,” he says. “I thought if I saw the problems and talked about the problems that we could fix it.”

Asked what happened, he says:

“The exact same thing that happens every time on these,” he says. “It went bad quickly. We can’t afford to keep doing this. Will we keep doing this? I think we will keep doing this exactly the way we’re doing it.”

Frontline’s Emma Schwartz, Rick Young and Fritz Kramer contributed to this story.

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We Don't Know How Many Workers Are Injured At Slaughterhouses. Here's Why

Beef sides hang in a chilling room at a slaughterhouse in Nebraska.

Beef sides hang in a chilling room at a slaughterhouse in Nebraska. Nati Harnik/AP hide caption

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A slaughterhouse is a safer place to work than it used to be, according to a new government report. But data gathered by federal regulators doesn’t likely capture all the risks faced by meat and poultry workers.

In an update to a 2005 report criticizing safety conditions for workers in the meat industry, the Government Accountability Office says injuries and illnesses are still common. From 2004 to 2013, 151 meat and poultry workers died from injuries sustained at work. The injury rate for meat workers is higher than the rest of the manufacturing industry.

But injuries in the meat industry are also likely to be underreported.

The GAO found several situations that may keep reported numbers from packing plants lower than reality. Here are some examples:

  • Sanitary workers who clean machinery in meat plants have suffered amputated limbs and severed fingers. Some have died on the job. But their cases are not always counted with meat and poultry industry data because many work for third-party contractors.
  • Medical staff at on-site clinics have encouraged workers to return to the line without seeing a doctor for pain. GAO cited a case where a worker made 90 visits to a nursing station before being referred to a physician.
  • Meat and poultry workers are often immigrants or refugees. They may downplay or not report injuries to protect their jobs and livelihoods. Language barriers can also prevent workers from receiving proper safety training.

“These limitations in [the Department of Labor’s] data collection raise questions about whether the federal government is doing all it can to collect the data it needs to support worker protection and workplace safety,” the GAO report said.

The GAO says safety researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should do more to study sanitation worker injuries and regulators should count those injuries alongside those sustained by other meat workers.

Worker advocates say they have long been suspicious of the injury rates reported by meat companies. For instance, a recent study at a Maryland poultry plant by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that one-third of workers had injuries that meet the definition of carpal tunnel, but only a handful of injuries had been reported to OSHA.

When injuries aren’t reported and treated, advocates say, they get worse.

“It has profound consequences for the workers,” says Celeste Monforton, an occupational health researcher at George Washington University. “Their injuries are exacerbated, some beyond repair.”

In recent years, groups like Nebraska Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center have highlighted working conditions that they say continue to put people at risk, such as fast line speeds that can cause repetitive motion injuries. And Oxfam found that poultry workers are often denied mandatory bathroom breaks during the workday. Workers said they ended up wearing adult diapers.

The North American Meat Institute, a trade group, issued a statement defending the meat industry’s record on worker safety record. It said that OSHA has reviewed injury recordkeeping and did not find underreporting to be a regular problem at meatpacking facilities. NAMI also said that the rate of reported injuries is at an all-time low.

In an interview before the report was released, NAMI safety director Dan McCausland said the meat industry has made strides in safety over the last few decades.

“If you go back to the late 80s, early 90s – particularly in slaughtering facilities – it was not uncommon to have a third of the employees have an injury significant enough to wind up on the OSHA 300 log every year,” McCausland said, referring to the OSHA form used to report workplace injuries. “Now it’s down in the 10 percent and below [range]. We have many facilities running 3 percent or less.”

McCausland says the industry continues to look for ways to automate packing plants to take some of the load off of workers’ shoulders.

This story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focused on food and agriculture.

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ExxonMobil, Chevron Shareholders Reject Resolutions Aimed At Battling Climate Change

ExxonMobil chairman Rex Tillerson, shown here in 2015, urged shareholders to reject the resolutions, arguing that not enough is known about the impact of climate change.

ExxonMobil chairman Rex Tillerson, shown here in 2015, urged shareholders to reject the resolutions, arguing that not enough is known about the impact of climate change. Evan Vucci/AP hide caption

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Shareholders of ExxonMobil and Chevron have voted to reject a series of resolutions aimed at encouraging the companies to take stronger actions to battle climate change.

But ExxonMobil shareholders voted in favor of a rule that could make it easier for minority shareholders to nominate outsiders to the company’s board, a potential victory for environmentalists.

Activist shareholders at both companies had placed an unusual number of resolutions on the ballot related to climate change.

The resolutions would have required the company to add a climate change expert to its board, publish an annual report on the subject, and pursue policies that limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. All were defeated at ExxonMobil’s annual meeting in Dallas.

Chevron shareholders voted down a series of similar resolutions at their annual meeting in San Ramon, California.

One bright spot for environmentalists was the passage of the so-called proxy access rule by ExxonMobil shareholders. The rule, which won 61.9 percent of the vote, could make it easier to bring outsiders such as a climate-change scientist onto the board.

Shareholders heard from several scientists who urged the company to take the threat of climate change more seriously.

“That’s what we’re basically asking for, is doing all that can be done with regard to cutting emissions,” said Michael MacCracken, chief scientist for climate change programs at the Climate Institute in Washington, D.C.

But the company had urged shareholders to reject the resolutions, arguing that too much remains unknown about the threat of climate change and how to address it.

“The reality is there is no alternative energy source known on the planet or available to us today to replace the pervasiveness of fossil fuel in our global economy and in our very quality of life, and I would go beyond that and say our very survival,” said Rex W. Tillerson, ExxonMobil’s president and chairman.

“So it is a judgement of balance between future climatic events which could prove to be catastrophic but are unknown … and the more immediate needs of humanity today,” he said.

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Even With Bundy Behind Bars, 'Range War' Lives On For Some Ranchers

Stanton Gleave considers himself to be a dying breed in the rural West, where cattle and sheep ranching was once a primary focus of federal rangelands.

Stanton Gleave considers himself to be a dying breed in the rural West, where cattle and sheep ranching was once a primary focus of federal rangelands. Kirk Siegler/NPR hide caption

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Stanton Gleave hardly fits the stereotype of a modest, keep-to-himself Western rancher.

Standing in a collection of muddy pens taking a break from shearing sheep near his home in tiny Kingston, Utah, Gleave gives an earful about his frustrations with the Bureau of Land Management and environmental groups.

“That’s who we’re actually fighting with,” says Gleave. “They’ve indoctrinated and got into this BLM and Forest Service ’til a lot of ’em are right up in the head positions now.”

Gleave has spent his whole life raising sheep and cattle. His hands are swollen from years of ranch work. He leans on a wooden cane, which he also uses to prod the lambs up a ramp into a shearing shed.

Gleave wants to talk about where these sheep spend most of their days, grazing on the slopes of Mount Dutton.

In recent years, federal grazing allotments have been reduced on federal public land there, and Gleave says it has been hitting his pocketbook.

“That’s what this thing’s about, range rights,” he says. “Since the 1800s our families have run livestock here.”

Lease Versus Own

Gleave is like your typical Western rancher in one important way: He doesn’t own much land himself. There’s no room to run livestock in this sliver of a valley. So he leases huge tracts of federal land that surround his place — namely Mount Dutton.

Many Western ranchers don't own much land themselves and rely on vast tracts of federal land for grazing.

Many Western ranchers don’t own much land themselves and rely on vast tracts of federal land for grazing. Kirk Siegler/NPR hide caption

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This was an arrangement that for the most part worked out pretty well for generations of ranching families like his. The federal government was there to help, maintaining and building roads so ranchers could access their stock. It helped with irrigation projects, building fences.

“Look at this little valley right here,” Gleave says, gesturing toward a highway and a smattering of small homes and pastures behind him. “When I was a kid, there was, let’s see, one, two, three, four gas stations in it, and three cafes, a furniture store, a car dealership.”

That was before the timber mills closed, and most of the mines too. Then President Clinton designated the massive Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. And that forced the BLM to focus a lot more on the environment and recreation, not just cows.

“If you read the Constitution, that’s the last thing our Founding Fathers wanted was for a federal government to be out here in our business,” Gleave says. “They’re supposed to be out there in Washington protecting that border down there.”

It’s true the amount of public land available for grazing has been cut a lot since the 1980s, even more since Gleave was a kid in the 1950s.

“What would you do if you was losing everything you got, would you stand and fight or would you roll over and play dead?” he asks.

This is the kind of talk that’s typical of a small, tight-knit group of ranchers mainly clustered in the remote Southwest. Most are conservative and refer to themselves as devout Mormons. They believe the Constitution doesn’t allow for the federal government to control Western land.

The government hoped the movement’s self-described “range war” would peter out after the arrests of rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons for their role in recent armed standoffs in Bunkerville, Nev., in 2014 and at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon earlier this year.

It hasn’t. The Bundys are facing a litany of federal felony charges that include conspiracy and assault on a federal office.

There is also renewed concern among federal officials that the shooting death of one of the Oregon militants, LaVoy Finicum, could fuel more potentially violent standoffs down the road.

Finicum’s widow, Jeannette, has likened it to an “assassination” and is planning to sue, even as she could face jail time herself.

“He stood for freedom,” she says.

The Anti-Federal-Lands Movement

Jeannette Finicum is now alone at the couple’s ranch near Colorado City, Ariz.; about a three-hour drive south from her friend Stanton Gleave’s place.

She wears a black shirt with the couple’s cattle brand printed on it, LV, for LaVoy. Inside the family’s modest brick ranch house, his cowboy hats are still hanging on the stair rail, his chaps by their bed, where he left them before he drove to Oregon.

Jeannette’s husband, Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was killed as federal authorities arrested militants at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. She says she knows the choice of whether her family stays in the cattle business may not be hers to make. Kirk Siegler/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Kirk Siegler/NPR

Finicum has been thrust to the forefront of the anti-federal-lands movement and there’s pressure on her to keep taking a stand against the government and continue defying federal grazing rules, as her husband had.

“They may have killed LaVoy’s voice,” she says, choking back tears, “but they created 12 more voices in our 11 children and myself, and we’re going to continue with his message going forward.”

But she hasn’t decided what she’ll do yet with the cows, whether to keep defying federal orders, or sell them and get out of the business altogether.

“I’ve already been told by many different people who’ve spoken with other officials that I’d better watch myself,” she says.

In the meantime, her family is starting its spring branding and the cows continue to graze illegally on federal land near here.

Federal authorities are not saying whether they’ll make more arrests. Yet Finicum knows the choice of whether she stays in ranching may not be hers to make.

“I stand to end up just like everyone else, arrested, property taken,” she says.

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Five Days And Five Nights With Doctors Without Borders

Morning at the MSF hospital compound in Bentiu, South Sudan. The two doctors, Jiske Steemsna (left) and Navpreet Sahsi, sit in front of the tents that serve as living quarters for the international workers during their three-to-six-month stints.

Morning at the MSF hospital compound in Bentiu, South Sudan. The two doctors, Jiske Steemsna (left) and Navpreet Sahsi, sit in front of the tents that serve as living quarters for the international workers during their three-to-six-month stints. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

“Look!” says Stefania Poggi. “They’ve made inflatable rafts.”

Two dozen boys are splashing in a massive, muddy pool surrounded by 30-foot-tall earthen banks. They’re jumping on grain sacks that they’ve filled with plastic bottles to make them float.

Poggi manages the Doctors Without Borders operation in the largest refugee camp in South Sudan.

A plane flies over the U.N. Protection of Civilians site near Bentiu, South Sudan, home to more than 120,000 people. The drainage ponds in the middle of the camp were dug to prevent the kind of massive flooding that inundated the camp in 2014.

A plane flies over the U.N. Protection of Civilians site near Bentiu, South Sudan, home to more than 120,000 people. The drainage ponds in the middle of the camp were dug to prevent the kind of massive flooding that inundated the camp in 2014. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

The 35-year-old Italian is standing on the banks of the drainage ditch, which was bulldozed through the middle of the camp to alleviate flooding.

She beams with delight at the kids’ ingenuity. Then she snaps back into her role as a health care professional. It’s probably a terrible idea that the kids are swimming in runoff from the camp, she says. “Could spread any kind of disease.”

But there are worse risks for kids in South Sudan right now than a murky drainage pond. They could be child soldiers. They could be victims of rape. They could be dying of starvation or succumbing to a parasitic infection that would be easily treatable if the health care system hadn’t collapsed.

This dirt road cuts through the sprawling camp.

This dirt road cuts through the sprawling camp. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

The hospital Poggi runs in the southwest corner of the camp is packed with dozens of kids suffering from severe malnutrition, malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhea. The facility has only two doctors to oversee its 170 beds.

There was a hepatitis E outbreak recently, and the hospital has isolation tents for measles and cholera. So if some of the kids have turned a drainage ditch into a makeshift swimming pool, so be it. The Italian aid worker isn’t too worried about the risk.

Stefania Poggi (center, in white jersey) oversees the morning meeting at the MSF hospital.

Stefania Poggi (center, in white jersey) oversees the morning meeting at the MSF hospital. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

“It’s good to get out [of the hospital] into the camp,” Poggi says with a shrug, a slightly mischievous smile lingering on her face.

Strangers In Their Own Land

This camp where she has spent the past two months is officially known as the United Nations Protection of Civilians Site Bentiu. More than 120,000 South Sudanese have sought refuge inside this compound, which is just outside the ransacked town of Bentiu. The U.N. categorizes them as “displaced persons” rather than refugees because they haven’t fled out of their own country.

From the outside, the camp looks like a post-apocalyptic prison. It stands on a dusty, arid plain and is ringed by bulldozed mounds of dirt topped with razor wire. Each wall is more than a mile long. U.N. peacekeepers man gun turrets along the earthen barricades.

The earthen wall that the children are standing on forms one side of a massive water retention pond in the middle of the camp.

The earthen wall that the children are standing on forms one side of a massive water retention pond in the middle of the camp. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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In the rainy season, the camp turns into a giant mud pit. In the dry season, the temperature hits 115 degrees and it becomes an expanse of dust.

Residents aren’t here because they want to be. They’re coming because they’re afraid they’ll be killed if they don’t. For the past 2 1/2 years, a brutal civil war has convulsed South Sudan. Late in 2013, the president and vice president, who are from rival ethnic groups, took up arms against each other. Both of their armies have been accused of rape, murder and torture.

“I saw people killed in front of me,” says 26-year-old Tavitha Nyaluak, sitting in the darkness of her shelter in the camp. Her 2-year-old daughter is in her lap, curled against her breast. “There was a lot of fighting. We were scared away from our village and hid across the river.” She arrived at the camp in June 2014. “I thank God that I came here. We could be killed if we stayed in the bush. Now I’m getting food for the children.”

A boy holds a makeshift toy. Behind him, young men wait with wheelbarrows for food rations to be distributed.

A boy holds a makeshift toy. Behind him, young men wait with wheelbarrows for food rations to be distributed. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

The Toll Of War

Before the war, South Sudan was one of the poorest countries in the world. Now it’s even poorer. The fighting pushed the country deeper into crisis, destroying crops, homes and the nation’s minimal infrastructure. Entire villages were burned to the ground. Hospitals were torched and patients massacred in their beds. Foreign medical teams and aid workers were forced to evacuate.

Originally the Bentiu camp was an ordinary U.N. base. As the war raged, people fled to the compound to escape the fighting. The peacekeepers kept extending the fortified perimeter farther out across the scrubland. The new residents kept building more huts from plastic sheeting, reeds and salvaged lumber.

More than 120,000 people have fled their homes and now live in huts made from reeds and tarps in the crowded camp.

More than 120,000 people have fled their homes and now live in huts made from reeds and tarps in the crowded camp. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

Even before the civil war erupted, Doctors Without Borders had been working in Bentiu. The group moved into the camp soon after the town was looted and burned to the ground in 2014. Human rights groups accuse forces loyal to President Salva Kiir of carrying out a scorched-earth policy in areas dominated by rival ethnic groups. Bentiu is one such area. The 170-bed hospital erected by Doctors Without Borders is known universally in the camp as MSF, the abbreviation for the French name of the group, Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Today, the MSF facility is the only functioning hospital in this part of the country. Each ward is in a large white tent. In most wards, 20 beds line a center aisle. Particularly in the pediatric wards, entire families — mother, father, kids — sleep in the same hospital bed. The hospital is run by roughly three dozen foreign workers and 500 local staff. The South Sudanese workers are camp residents. The foreign aid workers come for various amounts of time: nurses and midwives for six months; doctors, for three or four months.

Making Rounds With Dr. Nav

One of the two doctors is Navpreet Sahsi, a 34-year-old emergency room physician from Toronto.

Dr. Navpreet Sahsi, an emergency room physician from Toronto, on his daily rounds.

Dr. Navpreet Sahsi, an emergency room physician from Toronto, on his daily rounds. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

He’s a big personality on the wards, where he’s known as Dr. Nav. Kids rush up to greet him. The South Sudanese nurses gravitate toward him on his rounds. He jokes with a woman who just had twins that they’re going to share the newborns. “One for you, one for me! Right?” He pantomimes snatching one of the babies like a football. Everyone laughs.

Dr. Nav is in the middle of his morning rounds, going to one of the isolation wards to check on a 35-year-old woman with a mysterious rash.

“When she came, we all were kind of scratching our heads,” he says, pulling on a pair of latex gloves. “I’ve never seen a rash like this in my life.”

The patient is covered head to toe in blisters. Some of the sores are open. Others have scabbed over. Blood and pus stain the sheet of her mattress.

Families who have a relative in the hospital will sometimes hang their laundry to dry by the back fence of the MSF compound.

Families who have a relative in the hospital will sometimes hang their laundry to dry by the back fence of the MSF compound. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

“Her story is that she’s from Leer and she escaped in May or June [2015],” he says. Leer is a small town about 70 miles south of Bentiu near the banks of the White Nile.

After Leer was ransacked by soldiers, the woman and a group of women and children hid in a swamp. They’d spend most days submerged like hippos, just their heads above water. At night they’d come out to search for food and a dry place to sleep. The next day they’d slip back into the swamp so the soldiers wouldn’t be able to find them.

Local nurses at the MSF facility weigh a baby girl in a ward for malnourished children.

Local nurses at the MSF facility weigh a baby girl in a ward for malnourished children. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

Dr. Nav is keeping her in an isolation ward — not because she’s contagious but to give her some privacy and because he’s worried her appearance might scare the other patients. He has given her a topical cream to soothe her skin. Despite not having a clear sense of what’s causing the rash, he thinks it might respond to steroids.

He’s also worried that an infection will take hold in her open wounds. “We don’t live in a very clean environment. Flies are going in and out of her wounds, and we can’t really do much to stop that except for encouraging her to use the mosquito net,” he says. “But her risk of a secondary infection is quite high, which is why I just gave her antibiotics.”

These are some of the 500 people who work at the MSF hospital: medical staff, construction workers, administrative personnel who keep the place running. Some are foreigners; others are South Sudanese refugees who live in the camp.

These are some of the 500 people who work at the MSF hospital: medical staff, construction workers, administrative personnel who keep the place running. Some are foreigners; others are South Sudanese refugees who live in the camp. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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She’s part of a steady stream of patients. Sometimes the sheer volume of patients can be overwhelming. Dr. Nav recalls doing rounds one time with a South Sudanese assistant. After checking the vital signs of an elderly woman in one of the beds, Nav declared that she was looking remarkably better than the day before. His assistant looked puzzled. “That woman yesterday died,” Nav remembers the assistant saying. “This is a new one.”

Map showing South Sudan relative to other countries in Africa

Credit: Alyson Hurt/NPR

South Sudan is one of the most remote countries in Africa. It’s slotted like a puzzle piece in the heart of the continent. All told, the civil war has forced more than 2 million South Sudanese from their homes. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and even their former adversary, the Republic of Sudan.

But most of the displaced, like the woman with the full-body rash, remain inside the country.

Dr. Jiske Steemsna: High Highs And Deep Lows

“I saw people killed in front of me,” says 26-year-old Tavitha Nyaluak, explaining why she came to this camp. She’s nursing her 2-year-old daughter in their shelter. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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The other doctor at the hospital is Jiske Steemsna, a pediatrician from the Netherlands. She is making rounds on a ward filled with malnourished children. One of them is a 3-year-old who weighs just 15 pounds and has malaria.

The child swings in and out of consciousness. Steemsna at one point jams a needle all the way into the bone marrow of the girl’s leg to start an IV. The little girl barely flinches.

Steemsna says at first it was very hard to adjust from working in a hospital in Amsterdam to working here.

“Just getting used to the mortality, the children dying, every two to three nights being on call,” Steemsna says. “At first I had nightmares, just not feeling comfortable. But that lasted only the first week, I think.”

Dutch doctor Jiske Steemsna examines a patient. Working in the camp, she says, “has really high highs and deep lows, but I’m happy to be here.” David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

Steemsna sings in an a cappella group back in Holland. On the same ward as the malaria patient, Steemsna sings in French with a girl who appears to be 8 or 9 years old. The child howls with laughter every time the doctor joins in.

A week after being admitted, the girl with severe malaria dies, despite repeated efforts by Steemsna and the rest of the staff to revive her. The Dutch doctor at first curtly demands to know what happened and asks if the staff had done everything possible to save the child.

Her anger eventually subsides. Later she says it’s really hard when a child dies, but she’s coming to grips with the fact that she can’t save everyone. And it’s part of the reality here. “Now I can’t imagine going back to work in Amsterdam to an academic hospital,” says Steemsna, who has been in South Sudan for two months. “I feel happy being here. It’s hard work. It has really high highs and deep lows, but I’m happy to be here.”

Malaria is one of the most widespread illnesses. Pneumonia and tuberculosis are also common. There are entire wards of malnourished children. There’s a maternity ward and a tent for women and girls who have been raped.

A patient is weighed in one of the wards.

A patient is weighed in one of the wards. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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When the war outside the camp’s walls flares up, the hospital treats gunshot and stab wounds — a reminder that even though the camp itself is bleak, it’s a safe haven compared with the chaos outside.

‘We Sudanese Are Tired Now’

The hospital operates 24/7. As the sun goes down, mosquito nets are unfurled over beds. The lights in the wards are dimmed, but the tents still glow in the darkness.

Rebecca Nyarik, 29, has brought her 11-month-old son to the hospital. He’s had a fever for several days that doesn’t seem to be waning. Nyarik came to the camp two months ago to get away from a round of fighting that flared up in Leer, where she lived.

Dr. Nav talks with a tuberculosis patient.

Dr. Nav talks with a tuberculosis patient. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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The irony is that the South Sudanese civil war — the fighting that she fled — on paper is officially over. Both sides signed a peace deal in August 2015. But sitting with her son asleep in her arms, Nyarik says there is no peace in South Sudan. Gunmen continue to terrorize many parts of the country. The night before Nyarik brought her son to the MSF hospital, government soldiers attacked a camp on a U.N. base in the neighboring Upper Nile state. That attack left 29 people dead, injured 140 and forced tens of thousands to flee their shelters. Among the dead were two South Sudanese employees of Doctors Without Borders.

“If this is peace, why do people still continue the war? I myself think there is no peace,” Nyarik says, her anger barely contained. “If you have peace, then no fighting. I ask you why do Sudanese continue to die? Why?”

The hospital is staffed all night. Patients sleep under bed nets to avoid mosquitoes.

The hospital is staffed all night. Patients sleep under bed nets to avoid mosquitoes. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

Nyarik says if she leaves the camp, she and her son could be killed by anybody – government soldiers, rebel soldiers, unaligned militias.

“I myself I can’t go out [of the camp] until the peace is peace.”

It’s late, close to midnight. Most of the patients on the wards are asleep. At this time of night, calm settles over the hospital.

Nyarik shifts on the wooden bench and hoists her dozing infant farther up her chest.

“We Sudanese, we are tired now,” she says.

Yet there is not much hope for peace in the near future. A March report from the U.N. Human Rights Office accused both sides in the conflict of gross violations of human rights, including the systematic rape of civilians. The report alleged that government soldiers and militias aligned with the president were the worst perpetrators.

“This is one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world, with massive use of rape as an instrument of terror and weapon of war,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement when the report was released in March. “Yet it has been more or less off the international radar.”

Late-night checkup: A South Sudanese nurse reviews a patient's chart.

Late-night checkup: A South Sudanese nurse reviews a patient’s chart. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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The report found that some soldiers weren’t actually paid but instead were given permission to take whatever they wanted, including sex from the villagers they conquered.

The U.N. said some of the gravest violations of human rights in South Sudan’s civil war could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Rape As A Weapon

In conflicts like this, the MSF staff tries to take a stance that’s fiercely neutral. To provide medical care in the midst of a war, they need access, they need to appear impartial, and they need to not antagonize gunmen who may decide to ransack their hospital.

So the MSF personnel won’t talk about who is raping whom.

Anissa Dickerson, an American midwife, works with pregnant women and victims of sexual violence.

Anissa Dickerson, an American midwife, works with pregnant women and victims of sexual violence. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

They simply care for the women and girls who have been assaulted.

Anissa Dickerson, an American midwife, has been working for the past six months on the maternity ward and on the ward next to it, the tent marked by a yellow flower, the sexual violence ward.

It’s Dickerson’s second-to-last day before she heads home to Massachusetts.

She is part of a team that built up the sexual violence ward. They offer rape kits with drugs that could protect women from sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy. “But we see mostly women who were raped two, three, sometimes six months ago,” she says. “We see women who have walked three days to get here trying to get away from violence or leaving their village because there’s no food available anymore.” They provide counseling and referrals to other support groups in the camp.

On the maternity ward, Dickerson seems to delight in working with the premature babies. Her brown eyes light up and she flashes an impish smile when a former patient shows up at the neonatal intensive care unit. All the woman wants is to get her baby weighed, and she doesn’t need to be in the neonatal intensive care unit for that. Dickerson humors her, laughs with her and reassures the young mother that her child is healthy. “We’ll get your baby weighed and then maybe send you to pediatrics, OK?” she says.

When Dickerson talks about the sexual violence unit, however, her lightness evaporates.

Annisa Dickerson in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Annisa Dickerson in the neonatal intensive care unit. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

“We’ve seen girls as young as 12 and women as old as their late 50s. So it happens — it happens to everyone,” she says. “You know pregnant women and breast-feeding women used to be kind of a protected group. It wouldn’t happen to them. But it happens to them as well. It’s common to hear of women being raped by multiple men. Even pregnant women, you know, in front of children. They’re very common stories that we hear over and over.”

This is Dickerson’s first mission with MSF. She quit her job as a midwife in western Massachusetts to come here because, as she puts it, “I believe that all women should have a safe place to deliver. That’s really important to me. And unfortunately, in this country, most women don’t. And that’s why I want to work here.”

But it’s been a hard six months. “Hearing these [rape] cases every day — emotionally it’s been difficult,” she says.

Dr. Nav and Anissa Dickerson take a break on the roof of a shipping container at sundown.

Dr. Nav and Anissa Dickerson take a break on the roof of a shipping container at sundown. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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“To some extent I’ve had to turn some emotion off to make it through this. You know it’s hard to hear these stories and feel each one, and I don’t think I would make it through six months of this, feeling the emotions of each of these stories. It makes me angry about what’s happening. I think that eventually I’ll deal with it but I haven’t quite yet. It’s frustrating. I’m here to do the medical side and we’re doing that, but it’s frustrating that I — that we — can’t provide more than medical and psychological care to these survivors.”

She says she’s lost a lot of weight over the past six months. “I definitely have plans to eat a lot when I get home — lots of eating. Lots of sleeping.”

Down the road, she hopes to sign up for another assignment with MSF, but possibly something different: “Yeah, something maybe outside of a camp would be nice.”

To The Kids, He’s A Rock Star Doc

Dr. Nav is at the bedside of an extremely thin, elderly woman with a nasty cough.

“How long has she been coughing like this?” Dr. Nav asks his assistant. The woman continues to cough as Dr. Nav examines her.

“Can you ask: Does anyone in her family have TB? Anyone in her house?”

The floor is the coolest place to be in the heat of the day. A mom and her daughter rest in one of the children's wards.

The floor is the coolest place to be in the heat of the day. A mom and her daughter rest in one of the children’s wards. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

This tent, like all the other wards here, is packed. People are sleeping under some of the beds.

The coughing woman finally says yes, her husband had tuberculosis.

“How long ago was that?” Dr. Nav asks.

The husband died of TB two years ago. Dr. Nav orders the woman to be moved to the “suspect” tuberculosis ward immediately. The hospital has another ward for confirmed TB cases.

TB can be difficult and time-consuming to diagnose. Sputum samples are sent by plane to Kenya. Diagnosis can be delayed not just by backlogs at the lab but by the flight schedule. Once a patient is diagnosed, treatment takes at least six months, sometimes years.

Many TB patients are also suffering from HIV, although Dr. Nav is careful never to say HIV or AIDS on the wards. He calls it “that immune-suppressive disease that we aren’t going to mention.”

There’s a huge social stigma around HIV here; people who have it can become outcasts. The second problem Dr. Nav and his colleagues face is that this field hospital is not intended to be a long-term-care program. So they face a moral quandary. They could start people on powerful anti-AIDS drugs, but there’s no mechanism to ensure that the patients can continue to get the drugs once MSF leaves. Someone with HIV who starts on these drugs is supposed to remain on them for life, long after MSF plans to pull out of here.

This is Dr. Nav’s second mission with MSF. His first was two years ago in Yemen. The hospital was surrounded by heavy fighting and treated a lot of war casualties. It was so close to the conflict that Dr. Nav and the other foreign staff were eventually evacuated.

The kids in the camp made a beaded bracelet for Dr. Nav, who clasps the hand of a patient in the tuberculosis ward.

The kids in the camp made a beaded bracelet for Dr. Nav, who clasps the hand of a patient in the tuberculosis ward. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

“Yemen was very different. It was also a mission with chronic stress but very different chronic stress,” he says. “There was gun shooting and tank shooting and missile shooting all day every day, and there were some very close incidents. I came to peace with the idea that, you know, I might not make it out of that mission.”

The stress in this hospital in South Sudan, he says, comes from the incredible volume of disease and health problems.

“I’ve been here long enough that I can often sort of see someone’s mortality a couple of steps away,” he says. “They might be still talking but I know that they are sick enough that in this context they’ll probably continue to get sicker. And there’s nothing I can do to stop that. At home that’s really rare. That almost never happens.”

A 3-year-old who weighs only 15 pounds is suffering from severe malaria. Here she is wiped down with a damp cotton pad to cool her off. She died a week after being admitted.

A 3-year-old who weighs only 15 pounds is suffering from severe malaria. Here she is wiped down with a damp cotton pad to cool her off. She died a week after being admitted. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

In the pediatric ward at this field hospital, a 5-year-old girl drifts in and out of a malarial fever. Eventually, she succumbs. On the TB ward, an elderly man withers to the point that he appears to be just a skeleton draped in loose skin. He, too, slips away.

“We deal with a lot of death — a lot of death — much more than we’re used to seeing at home by far,” says Dr. Nav. “If a child dies at home in the emergency room, it’s quite a significant tragedy. You share it with all of your co-workers and with the family, and it’s something you really remember and have a lot of support for. Here a child dies almost every day.”

Residents walk across a dusty plain inside the U.N. Protection of Civilians camp near Bentiu, South Sudan.

Residents walk across a dusty plain inside the U.N. Protection of Civilians camp near Bentiu, South Sudan. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

Dr. Nav says part of why it’s so difficult is that he knows what it’s like to work in emergency rooms in Canada. He knows that with the right equipment and the right drugs, he could save a lot of these kids. But here that’s not always the case.

“And it’s really difficult when that happens time and time again over months — you know sometimes you question what real benefit you’re providing to the community. And so yeah, the emotional toll is very high.”

When the monthly food rations are distributed to residents, kids will transport the heavy sacks of sorghum and split peas in exchange for food or money.

When the monthly food rations are distributed to residents, kids will transport the heavy sacks of sorghum and split peas in exchange for food or money. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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Exercise is one thing he tries to do to cope with the stress. He has set up a set of elastic straps in the sandbagged bunker to use as a makeshift workout machine. He sometimes does sit-ups and pushups for exercise, but it’s nothing like being able to go for a long bike ride back in Canada.

For security reasons, the medical staff can’t just go for a walk outside the compound. “You can definitely feel confined here,” Dr. Nav says.

Late at night he binge-watches TV shows and movies he pre-loaded on his laptop. Breaking Bad is one of his favorites.

Dr. Nav at times gets frustrated. But even though some patients don’t survive, many do. Kids recover. Parents recover. When an outbreak hits, patients turn to MSF. Outside the hospital, life for the 124,000 people in the camp can be bleak. People are crowded into a barren expanse of dirt and gravel. Women face a constant struggle to collect water and gather food to supplement the U.N. rations. Some residents say they worry about crime and won’t let their children out after dark.

It's a daily ritual: Women carry water from communal taps back to their shelters.

It’s a daily ritual: Women carry water from communal taps back to their shelters. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption David Gilkey/NPR

So the hospital tries to provide more than just medical relief. In one tent, staffers have set up a loudspeaker playing music in a waiting area. At times it looks like a disco with kids dancing under a green awning.

Among the kids, Dr. Nav is a rock star. They shake his hand. They yell the Nuer greeting, “MAL-LAY!” at him.

“Every time I walk up and down the aisle I’m greeted by 20 kids who want to shake my hand every single day,” he says. “I mean there’s lots of smiling, happy moments here. And we get to see a lot of people get better. We get to see them come back here happy and healthy and thankful. And so yeah there’s a lot of joy in this place, too, for sure.”

And sometimes, that’s enough to keep him going.

Kids who are waiting inside the hospital compound play with a balloon outside the wards.

Kids who are waiting inside the hospital compound play with a balloon outside the wards. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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Dr. Nav, finishing up his breakfast, chats with some of his MSF colleagues. The foreign staff live two to a tent.

Dr. Nav, finishing up his breakfast, chats with some of his MSF colleagues. The foreign staff live two to a tent. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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TSA Hopes To Speed Up Screening Lines This Summer, Administrator Tells Congress

TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger prepares to testify during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill.

TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger prepares to testify during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

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The head of the beleaguered Transportation Security Administration told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday the long passenger lines at screening checkpoints at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport this month should have been avoided. He also said it was a “failure” on the part of the agency to get some things done.

“Chicago was a preventable incident in my opinion,” TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said at a House Homeland Security committee hearing.

“When you look at what happened, this was a surge that was anticipated, it was known, it was a failure to get some things done in advance of that,” Neffenger said.

Neffenger, the lone witness at the hearing, added that the O’Hare airport incident was fixed “pretty quickly” through a combination of accelerating the deployment of additional K-9 units, sending more transportation security officers to Chicago, converting 100 part-time officers to full-time as well as approving more overtime hours for workers there.

“The total of that has resulted in a significant change in the Chicago picture,” Neffenger said.

TSA Chief Neffenger testified on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, as lawmakers sought answers to why long security lines at airports around the country persist.

TSA Chief Neffenger testified on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, as lawmakers sought answers to why long security lines at airports around the country persist. J. Scott Applewhite/AP hide caption

toggle caption J. Scott Applewhite/AP

He also cited the Chicago Tribune, which reported wait times are now 15 minutes at that airport, down from waits that exceeded two hours earlier this month leading to hundreds of people to miss their flights or spend the night at the airport. The shorter wait times, he said, are the result of a new TSA management team at O’Hare and converting dozens of part-time screeners to full time.

Neffenger’s testimony comes at a critical time for the TSA as the agency is receiving increased congressional scrutiny over its management and accountability. It also comes just days before the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, the start of the the summer travel season.

Earlier this week, the head of security for TSA, Kelly Hoggan, was replaced after the House Oversight Committee found he received more than $90,000 in bonuses over a 13-month period.

Neffenger told lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing, which lasted about two hours and resulted in few fireworks, of his plans to expedite screening times as the summer travel season gets underway. That includes adding 768 screeners to its workforce by mid-June.

He also noted that there will be a “lag time” in how quickly problems will be resolved. Neffenger said the TSA projects that checkpoints across the country will screen 100 million more people in 2016 than it did in 2013, while the agency’s workforce has been reduced by 12 percent over that same time period.

Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, described issues with the agency a “crisis” and not just limited to Chicago. He added that the bureaucracy at the TSA “has gotten weaker.”

“This crisis didn’t just come out of nowhere. Airports and airlines have been sounding the alarm for months,” McCaul said. “The agency has struggled to keep up with the high demand and has been unable to put the right people at the right place at the right time. Change is not happening fast enough.”

The issue of travelers bringing more carry-on items through security checkpoints to avoid additional bag fees was raised at the hearing.

Neffenger acknowledged it is a problem saying there are four times as many carry-ons coming through security compared to what gets checked.

Louisiana Democrat Rep. Cedric Richmond urged Neffenger to look into waiving checked-bag fees if passengers enroll in the TSA’s Pre-Check program. He called the additional bag fees many airlines impose “just another way to dig in the American people’s pocket.”

But he did offer a solution.

“Why don’t we say anyone who has Pre-Check, the airlines can’t charge you baggage fees. And that would drive people to go enroll in Pre-Check and we get to, not stick it to the airlines, but we’d get to help the American people,” Richmond said.

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Reports Peg Tech Billionaire As Funder Of Hulk Hogan's Case Against Gawker

Peter Thiel, head of Clarium Capital Management and founding investor in PayPal and Facebook, speaks at a conference in San Francisco on April 12.

Peter Thiel, head of Clarium Capital Management and founding investor in PayPal and Facebook, speaks at a conference in San Francisco on April 12. Noah Berger/Bloomberg/Getty Images hide caption

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It’s been one of those speculative rumors, that some Silicon Valley third party was powering Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media and its owner Nick Denton, over a publication in 2012 of a sex tape.

“My own personal hunch is that it’s linked to Silicon Valley,” Denton told The New York Times, about the Hulk Hogan case and several new lawsuits that the same lawyer has brought against Gawker and its writers.

Now, anonymous sources tell Forbes magazine and The New York Times that the man footing the bill is Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, early Facebook investor and a prominent Silicon Valley financier.

The Times, citing “a person briefed on the arrangement who spoke on the condition of anonymity,” said Thiel had privately agreed to help pay the expenses of the legal team representing the former celebrity wrestler, whose legal name is Terry Bollea.

Forbes, citing “people familiar with the situation who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity,” said Thiel has played a lead role in bankrolling Bollea’s cases against Gawker.

Thiel, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, has been a curious figure in Silicon Valley. He has staked out a strong libertarian position and in 2012 boosted the superPAC supporting Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. This campaign season, he has emerged as a California delegate for Donald Trump.

Thiel has also been vocal about his view that higher education has been overly valued in the United States, and in 2011 established a fellowship to fund entrepreneurial work by college-age students if they drop out of school for two years.

Thiel has had several run-ins with Gawker’s reporting on his political and financial decisions, but the most prominent incident was in 2007, when the website’s then-running gossip vertical Valleywag outed Thiel’s sexual orientation in a post titled, “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people.”

Thiel, who is now open about being gay, later called Valleywag “the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda.”

Thiel and Bollea’s lawyer haven’t commented on the possible financial arrangement between them. As Forbes points out, it wouldn’t be an uncommon deal:

“It is not illegal for an outside entity to help fund another party’s lawsuit, and the practice, known as ‘third-party litigation funding’ has become increasingly common in the U.S. Typically, the outside party negotiates for a defined share of any proceeds from the suit.”

As the Two-Way blog reported in March, Bollea argued that Gawker invaded his privacy “when it published a portion of a video showing him having sex with the wife of a former friend, along with 1,400 words describing the video.”

Gawker argued that Bollea’s “frequent public discussion of his sex life made the clip newsworthy and thus protected by the First Amendment.”

A jury in Florida has awarded Bollea $140 million in damages, more than he had requested. Gawker is appealing the verdict.

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