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How FEMA disaster relief went wrong

Director insists mistakes were within reason

By Megan O'Matz and Sally Kestin
Staff writers
Posted May 21 2005
 
Washington, D.C. ∑ Inexperienced inspectors, savvy applicants and untimely operational changes led to overpayments and fraud in Miami-Dade County after Hurricane Frances, congressional investigators found.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency further compromised the disaster relief program by reducing its oversight of inspectors after last year's four hurricanes and by creating new rules that left some inspectors unsure what constituted an "unsafe" home, investigations by the U.S. Senate and executive branch auditors concluded.







The assessments are part of a sweeping congressional investigation into FEMA's hurricane payments in Miami-Dade, prompted by a series of reports in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee found fault with much of the $31 million doled out to residents for Frances, which made landfall more than 100 miles north of the county.

After grilling FEMA Director Michael Brown about the payments at a hearing in Washington on Wednesday, the committee is now turning its attention toward fixing what one staffer described as "repeated mistakes" in federal disaster aid going back more than a decade.

"You see mistakes that seem to recur from Hurricane Hugo to the Northridge [Calif.] earthquake to Hurricane Isabel," the staffer said. "You see repeated mistakes." Committee Chairwoman Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, plans to meet with Brown soon to begin working on tightening procedures and guidelines.

Brown insisted in his committee testimony that the errors were within reason given the magnitude of the storms. Collins disagrees.

"It's certainly not acceptable," she told the Sun-Sentinel. "I realize that FEMA's resources were severely strained by the unprecedented combination of four hurricanes hitting in such a short period of time, but that does not excuse what appears to be widespread and systemic weaknesses in the controls that are needed to protect the interest of taxpayers."

So far, FEMA has paid out more than $31 million to residents of Miami-Dade who claimed damage to their homes and belongings from Hurricane Frances, the Labor Day weekend storm that made landfall 100 miles to the north. Conditions in Miami-Dade were not severe. Meteorologists recorded no tornados and no flooding.

Both the committee and the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security faulted FEMA for declaring Miami-Dade a disaster area without first assessing damage. The declaration made it possible for almost 13,000 Miami-Dade residents to collect money.

Much of the aid, the Sun-Sentinel found, was concentrated in poor neighborhoods of the county -- Liberty City, Opa-locka, Homestead -- where word of "easy money" spread quickly.

Fourteen aid recipients have been indicted and seven have pled guilty to fraud charges, most from Homestead. Five of the awards topped $15,000. One FEMA inspector who worked in Miami-Dade told congressional investigators that as soon as he left one home, neighbors would ask him to come look at their damage. After instructing people on how to apply with FEMA, the inspector would find himself back the next day in those homes.

Inspectors told the investigators it is common in high-density, low-income urban neighborhoods and trailer parks for word to spread quickly about FEMA's largesse. The agency's rules are designed specifically to help the uninsured.

Housing inspectors have told the Sun-Sentinel that they have been threatened and accosted in some areas by residents demanding government aid. Fearful of being attacked, some inspectors are too generous in their assessments of damage, a phenomenon FEMA calls the "tough neighborhood syndrome," according to documents provided to the Senate committee.

The documents also refer to FEMA's "culture" of erring on the side of the applicant. Inspectors are instructed to accept the word of residents who cannot prove damage. The inspector general found FEMA gave money for cars and belongings inspectors never saw and boats that reportedly sank.

After Hurricane Frances, applicants could call FEMA, say their home was unsafe, and receive one month's rent to live elsewhere without offering any proof of the destruction. "It's pay first, verify later," the inspector general found.

Federal investigators also found that changes intended to speed up claims made the program particularly vulnerable to mistakes and fraud.

To handle requests for help from the four hurricanes, FEMA doubled the number of housing inspections it expected each day from 7,500 to 15,000. Two Virginia-based companies that have government contracts to dispatch inspectors, PaRR Inspections and a Parsons Brinckerhoff subsidiary, responded by hiring about 3,200 novices with little training or oversight, the inspector general found.

The error rate for new inspectors was more than three times higher than experienced ones, according to documents provided the committee.

In Miami-Dade, long-time inspectors told committee staff that they saw little damage and attributed problems they did observe to poor maintenance, not the hurricane.

 






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