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