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New York's pandemic preparedness equipment is up for auction

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Early in the pandemic, then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was a daily presence on TV. He tried to calm worried citizens and update them on the state's efforts to build medical facilities and get the medical gear necessary to fight the growing toll of hospitalizations and deaths.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: All systems are go here. As you can see behind me, the material has already started to arrive.

MARTIN: All that material paid for by the federal government is now stored away as surplus. Ava Pukatch found it up for auction in a cavernous space in upstate New York.

AVA PUKATCH, BYLINE: Tall stacks of 2-by-4 wood, 11 piles of white metallic doors and 32 cardboard boxes packed to the brim with lighting fixtures are just some of the items lining the inside of the New York State Preparedness Training Center. Each is tagged with a bright yellow sticker and a black number. Potential buyers weave through the aisles, looking around the room, talking on the phone as they plan their bidding strategy. They're looking at FEMA supplies from the COVID-19 pandemic. New York state is hoping to turn it back all into cash. Joe Brill of the state's Office of General Services says the State Department of Health reviewed its inventory to pull out any items the state could need in the future. What's left is up for bid.

JOE BRILL: Walls, tents and HVAC units, electrical, plumbing and security systems.

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: Five-fifty-nine - 559. All right...

PUKATCH: Other items included 9,000-gallon oxygen tanks, generators, lighting, air filters and even ambulances. Buyers follow an auctioneer who's yelling from the back of a truck as it drives through the lot.

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: Seven-forty-nine - 749. It's an '06 E350 ambulance, white...

PUKATCH: His assistant calls out bids made by an online pool of buyers separate from the in-person crowd bids. The auctioneer gazes over the buyers and rattles off prices, increasing by $25, $50, $100, as he gauges the mood of the crowd, often selling lots in less than a minute. A bulk of the auction also takes place outside, since equipment like transformers, HVAC units and buses are too large to store inside. After the auction finishes, the buyers have just a few days to haul their finds away. Some people bid on almost everything, but Doug Slawson takes a more reserved approach. He represents a bridge building company and came with a specific list of items which today includes lights but only if it's below his target price.

DOUG SLAWSON: I don't feel the need to bid on anything unless I know I'm going to get below my number.

PUKATCH: Karen Abbott is bidding on items with hopes of reselling them. As the auctioneer is trucked from lot to lot, Abbott follows close behind, bidding on items even if she doesn't know exactly what she'll do with it.

What did you just find?

KAREN ABBOTT: Fans. I don't know what they are. They're some kind of fan. I'll figure it out when I get them back to my yard (laughter).

PUKATCH: And as the auction comes to a close, bidders head to pay for their purchases, and volunteers start moving piles of bought items with forklifts to be ready for pickup. New York's Office of General Services says the auction brought in more than $1.4 million, which will primarily go to the state's general fund.

For NPR News, I'm Ava Pukatch in Oriskany, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ava Pukatch