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FEMA spent more on generators than repairs
In the first seven weeks after Hurricane Wilma, $95 million in federal disaster aid went to buy Floridians generators and cleanup items, more than the government spent to fix homes damaged by the October storm.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency paid 117,000 residents under a controversial policy that reimburses anyone, regardless of income, for generators, chain saws, wet/dry vacuums, air purifiers and dehumidifiers, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigation has found.In Broward County, the reimbursements cost $41 million, and in Palm Beach County, $19 million -- exceeding the amount FEMA spent on home repairs.
In a ZIP code that includes parts of affluent Weston and Southwest Ranches, 33332, taxpayers paid for generators or chain saws for one in six households.
The ZIP code 33428, home to the Boca Woods Country Club, received the most in Palm Beach County, $1.1 million.
The payments renewed calls from politicians to change the policy.
"The notion that we buy generators is absolutely crazy -- for anyone," said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Jupiter. "I just think it's a huge waste of money."
State and federal legislators have criticized the reimbursements since the Sun-Sentinel reported earlier this month that the cost had exceeded $332 million in Florida the past two hurricane seasons. Claims from the four hurricanes in 2004 totaled $242 million, with most of the money going to middle- and upper-income areas.
The same pattern has continued with Wilma. The newspaper's analysis of claims as of Dec. 12 found that 58 percent of the recipients live in ZIP codes with median family incomes above the state's median of $52,550 a year.
The Wilma claims also indicate FEMA's practice of reimbursing people more than they paid may be widespread. FEMA reimbursed an average price, $836 for a generator, unless an inspector specifically noted the applicant paid less.
Last week, agency spokeswoman Frances Marine called overpayments "the exception and not the rule."
But of the more than 100,000 generator claims FEMA approved, 99 percent received the full $836, the Sun-Sentinel found. The claims do not indicate how much applicants actually paid, but spokesmen for the home improvement chains Lowe's and Home Depot said their top-selling generators in Florida cost $499 to $699.
"This tells you there's a huge number of people that FEMA overpaid," said state Sen. Ron Klein, a Boca Raton Democrat who has asked Florida's auditor general to audit the payments. "This is millions of dollars once again being thrown out by FEMA."
Florida pays 25 percent of the cost of the reimbursements.
Marine issued a one-sentence statement Thursday: "We're going to fix it."
Asked repeatedly to elaborate, she said in an e-mail Friday: "Over the past several days, you have asked for our reaction/statement regarding the Sun-Sentinel's finding that a majority of Floridians were reimbursed the fixed amount as opposed to the amount reflected on receipts for generators. Our comment on the generators issue remains: We're going to fix it."
FEMA is still processing thousands of Wilma claims. Home repairs and housing assistance can take longer than generator reimbursements because homeowners must file private insurance claims first.
Wilma spurred a generator-buying frenzy after the Oct. 24 storm knocked out power to much of South Florida for up to three weeks. News media publicized the government reimbursements, and stores handed out FEMA's phone number. Some residents told the newspaper they bought generators or chain saws because the government was picking up the tab.
FEMA paid for Nila Fuzia's generator in Lighthouse Point. In her ZIP code, 33064, nearly 2,000 residents received reimbursements, at a cost of $1.6 million.
"Most people I talked to were going to apply," Fuzia said.
The 50-year-old auto dealer executive welcomed the help but questions whether the program is a good use of tax money.
"Why don't they have a couple truckloads [of generators] to hand out to people who need them and not reimburse people?" she said.
Unlike other disasters where most applicants receive FEMA aid for damage to homes or lost belongings, 59 percent of Wilma recipients got money for generators or cleanup items and nothing else.
The ZIP code 33024, a middle-income area that includes parts of Davie, Pembroke Pines and Hollywood, led the state with 2,547 residents receiving $2.1 million.
In a north Broward area that includes Parkland, where the median family income this year topped $100,000, FEMA reimbursed 1,277 residents $1 million.
In two ZIP codes that encompass Wellington, an affluent village in Palm Beach County where polo is a popular pastime, 2,573 residents collected $2.1 million.
Claims came from one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the state, the Coral Gables and Pinecrest areas south of Miami, where 611 residents received $504,590 in reimbursements.
"Why are we buying generators for people that can afford them?" asked U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale. "And why are we buying generators anyway?"
Shaw supports paying for generators only for those with medical needs, similar to a policy in North Carolina.
"To put a generator in every home is ridiculous," he said. "There are some inconveniences you have following a violent storm ... that people have to tolerate, and it's not the federal government's responsibility to turn on your lights."
At the urging of Shaw, Rep. Foley and two Democratic members of Congress, a House committee plans to review FEMA's reimbursement policy. While the program is administered by FEMA, states have the option of participating and choose the items to be covered.
Florida is considering ending the reimbursements next hurricane season, Gov. Jeb Bush said last week. The governor has said FEMA's reimbursement methods are flawed, and the policy runs counter to his message urging Floridians to be prepared for hurricanes.
Several people have complained to the Sun-Sentinel that they were ineligible for FEMA reimbursement because they bought generators in advance of the storm season. FEMA paid only for items purchased Oct. 19 to Nov. 18.
Others complained that the policy is unfair to residents too poor to buy a generator and wait for reimbursement.
The state is reviewing the policy, "looking at what types of reimbursements are made, whether or not it's encouraging preparedness and whether or not it's appropriate," Bush spokesman Russell Schweiss said Thursday.
Foley said that if anything, FEMA should reimburse residents only for generator rentals after a disaster.
"I've heard these stories where people get these generators, they return them to Home Depot and walk off with their $800," he said. "This gravy train's got to end soon before we all get addicted to FEMA."