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Miami-Dade told officials that losses were minor but FEMA aid flowed anyway
Federal officials knew as early as two days after Hurricane Frances that the Labor Day storm had left little damage in Miami-Dade County.
So little that community relations teams that the Federal Emergency Management Agency dispatches to promote disaster aid and canvass areas for damage left after one day in Miami-Dade.
The workers visited neighborhoods from Bal Harbour to Kendall and contacted county emergency management officials, who told them they knew of few problems in the county.
FEMA also was receiving daily reports from emergency managers throughout Florida, showing no fatalities in Miami-Dade, power outages to fewer than 10 percent of the households, a "good supply" of fuel and damage that did not even rise to the "moderate" threshold.
Despite those early assessments, FEMA has awarded $28.9 million in disaster grants to 12,382 Miami-Dade residents. In the past week alone, FEMA sent almost $300,000 more to the county.
"Their own community relations teams scoured the county and couldn't find anything," said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, D-West Palm Beach. "That should have triggered them to start looking at claims. That should signal to the folks cutting checks, hold on."
The inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, the umbrella agency over FEMA, is now investigating fraud allegations in the county and anticipates arrests by the end of the month. And last week, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler called on the county manager to press FEMA on why it awarded so much aid in a county largely spared by the storm.
"I wish someone could explain it to me," said Carey-Shuler, whose district received a large share of the FEMA funds. "I don't know why they'd have received any money. We had no damage from Frances."
On Sept. 7, two days after the storm made landfall 100 miles north of Miami-Dade, FEMA sent six community relations employees to the county to spread the word on available disaster assistance.
They visited firehouses, community centers, fast food restaurants and churches. They distributed fliers in English and Spanish titled "Disaster Assistance Is Available Now," said FEMA spokeswoman Mary Hudak.
The fliers list FEMA's toll-free disaster application number in bold type. "CALL TODAY," they say. "YOU MAY BE ELIGIBLE, BUT YOU MUST APPLY."
Two of the FEMA workers visited the Miami-Dade emergency management office.
"They just asked us to give them an overview of what went on in the county," said Frank Reddish, the county's emergency management coordinator. "We said mainly we didn't get hit very hard."
Reddish said his office "showed them on a map where various and sundry things were." The FEMA representatives, he said, were interested in Opa-locka and "places where we have low-income residents."
In an analysis of FEMA claims records through mid-October, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported last month that the poorest neighborhoods in Miami-Dade received more than half the aid sent to the county. In one Opa-locka ZIP code, where colleges, an airport and storeowners reported no damage, almost 1,000 residents collected $1.6 million in FEMA assistance.
Throughout Miami-Dade, residents claimed the storm ruined thousands of televisions, microwaves and other appliances. FEMA paid for new cars, dental bills and a funeral.
The records do not indicate how many of the claims were a result of FEMA's fliers and "outreach" efforts. Several aid recipients told the newspaper they learned of the assistance from television news coverage of the storms.
FEMA's community relations teams left Miami-Dade Sept. 8, the day after they arrived, to concentrate on "areas that we knew were more severely affected," Hudak said. A FEMA representative returned to Miami-Dade on Sept. 28 to speak at a Haitian neighborhood center and meet with members of the NAACP, she said.
Several Florida legislators said they found no fault with FEMA's decision to send community liaisons to Miami-Dade, which was included in the president's declaration as a disaster area. But they said the workers' observations from their first visit should have been a "red flag" for FEMA.
"If there really isn't a problem in that area, God only knows why they're sending large checks," said state Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton. "Somebody dropped the ball here, or the whole system is set up with major deficiencies."
Sending teams to assess damage and inform communities about assistance is a "fabulous strategy," said U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton.
"The question raised is whether the next level of management at FEMA ever checks with its field teams to determine whether there is actual damage," he said. "Apparently, in Miami-Dade, the person writing the checks never checked."
FEMA did not respond to a request for comment.
Agency officials previously said their priority is to get aid out quickly after disaster strikes. FEMA plans to review how that process worked in Florida after completing all applications.
Legislators said the agency had ample evidence early that Miami-Dade suffered little damage from Frances.
Daily "situation reports" prepared by Florida's emergency managers and shared with FEMA showed few problems in the county.
On Sept. 5, the day the storm passed, 91-98 percent of Miami-Dade residents had power restored, the situation report said.
The next day's report included a map of the state with hardest-hit counties designated in red and those with "moderate to severe" damage in yellow. Miami-Dade had no noted damage. The county was the only one in southeast Florida that had lifted evacuation orders and had no advisories to boil water.
By the Sept. 9 update, officials had confirmed 17 deaths from Frances, but none in Miami-Dade.
"I remember reviewing those reports," Wexler said. "I was in a battle with FPL [Florida Power & Light Co.] as to why they had not moved their crews from Miami-Dade northward to Palm Beach based on those reports that indicated minimal damage. FEMA certainly had access to all that information from the very beginning."
Rep. Foley wants a full review of FEMA's disaster aid process, including making sure the agency acts on information collected by community relations teams after disaster strikes.
"This was our early assessment team," he said. "There has to be a way to disseminate important information like that before the claims run amok."
Megan O'Matz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4518.