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Disaster Aid

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board
Posted May 20 2005

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ISSUE: FEMA's mishandling of hurricane damage claims got a harsh reception

in Congress.



Not surprisingly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn't fare too well on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Congress, which holds FEMA's purse strings, doesn't like to hear about $31 million in wasted taxpayer money.

That's the amount FEMA has paid Miami-Dade County residents for purported damage from a hurricane that struck 100 miles away and, according to official records, caused no significant damage in the county. Fourteen aid recipients have been indicted on fraud charges, and investigations continue.

But the problems at FEMA go far beyond a handful of dishonest claimants. They are systemic and widespread, according to investigations by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security.

Yet FEMA, which has been blind to its failings from the outset of the Sun-Sentinel investigation, kept its eyes closed in its response to the inspector general's audit, expressing satisfaction that it "confirmed no widespread or systemic waste."

That was news to the inspector general, who told a Senate committee that "the problems ... were across the board ... in each and every one of the programs." Asked specifically whether FEMA's response accurately reflected his findings, he answered no.

Since FEMA can't even recognize its problems, it's incapable of fixing them on its own. Congress must take the lead. Bills have been filed that would, among other things, tighten eligibility for funeral reimbursement, make FEMA verify damage before issuing a disaster declaration, increase penalties for fraud and strengthen qualifications for inspectors. All deserve to become law, but Congress should continue to explore other possible reforms as well.



BOTTOM LINE: FEMA can't fix itself, so Congress should pass new laws and continue seeking additional reforms.


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COLUMNISTS

Earl Maucker
Editor

Douglas C. Lyons
Editorial Writer

Stephen Goldstein
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Guillermo I. Martinez
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