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Posted 5/18/2005 3:46 PM     Updated 5/18/2005 11:09 PM
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FEMA chief defends agency's response to Fla. storm
WASHINGTON — The head of the government's disaster-relief agency on Wednesday disputed an audit that found the agency wasted millions of dollars after Hurricane Frances last fall. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown said he was proud of the agency's response to an "unusually cruel" storm season.

"I did not throw away the rulebook" in order to get fast relief to hurricane victims, Brown told the Senate Homeland Security committee.

The audit by the Homeland Security department's inspector general charged that lax inspection policies left FEMA open to "fraud, waste and abuse" and that FEMA doled out $31 million to Miami-Dade county residents who may not have deserved any money. In some cases, payments went to people who had no property damage.

The hurricane hit 100 miles north of Miami-Dade, which sustained some damage from 47 mph tropical force winds. But the county didn't suffer the ravages of hurricane force winds (74 mph or more) that hit other counties.

In a hearing on the charges, committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, called it "alarming" that inspectors allegedly doled out $9 million in rental assistance to 5,000 people who never had to leave their homes.

In at least one case, the audit found, $726 in temporary rental assistance was given to someone because of a $100 broken window.

"It's extraordinary to me that payments were made to people living in undamaged homes," Collins said.

Brown urged senators investigating FEMA's hurricane response to remember that in fall 2004, Florida was hit with four hurricanes in six weeks — an unprecedented disaster. Given the magnitude of the damage, Brown said he had to quickly hire and train thousands of new inspectors. But he said he decided in favor of "accelerating the delivery of desperately needed federal assistance to a potentially immense victim population," even if that meant the system might be more open to abuse.

And he said he would do it again.

But Collins said the government should be able to both assist disaster victims and protect taxpayer money.

"No one contests the need for the federal government to provide swift and compassionate assistance to the victims of natural disasters," she said. "But when scarce resources are wasted, fraudulent claims are paid, and safeguards are ignored, there are new victims: the taxpayers."

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