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Posted 5/17/2005 11:43 PM     Updated 5/18/2005 10:54 AM
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Report faults FEMA on aid
WASHINGTON The federal government gave $31 million in disaster relief for Hurricane Frances to 12,000 Florida residents who were not directly hit by the hurricane last fall and may not have deserved any money, government auditors say in a report to be released Wednesday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) didn't adequately inspect homes and used a system of aid payments "susceptible to potential fraud, waste and abuse," says the report by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general.

The findings are the latest to point at questionable disaster relief payments made by FEMA. Audits dating back at least a decade have shown similar problems elsewhere. The agency was the target of millions of dollars in phony claims after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The latest report said that FEMA paid $15,742 for three funerals without any proof that the deaths were disaster-related. The agency also paid $2.7 million to repair 2,180 homes even though inspectors didn't have proper documentation, and residents were reimbursed $192,592 for chainsaws, generators and other unverified expenses, the report said.

  Payouts under scrutiny

In addition, FEMA acknowledged Tuesday that at one point after the September 2004 storm, an inspector took aid applications at a fast food restaurant and never bothered to check properties.

The report and the agency's performance in handling the disaster will be the subject of a Senate hearing today.

Last year's problems began when FEMA declared Miami-Dade county a disaster area before assessing whether it had sustained any significant damage, the report says. Miami-Dade faced tropical storm winds of 47 mph, which can be severe but are significantly less than hurricane winds of 74 mph or more. Some areas of the county, particularly low-income neighborhoods, suffered damage.

Michael Brown, the chief of FEMA, defends his agency's decisions. "I'd do it all over gain the same way," he said. "I was there. I saw it. It was the right thing to do."

So far, 14 people have been indicted for making false claims.

"It's outrageous to discover that taxpayer dollars that were supposed to be going to provide assistance to legitimate victims instead went to people who suffered no damage at all," said Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Brown said FEMA had to quickly hire and train 2,000 extra inspectors to help handle four hurricanes that hit Florida last fall. He cited the cases of two inspectors including the man who took aid applications at the fast food restaurant who were fired after an investigation.

Among the problems outlined in the federal audit: FEMA paid $4,500 for a victim who drowned in a pool even though it was ruled an accident.

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