FEMA disaster aid operations tightened after Frances

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Federal officials announced sweeping changes Friday in how they verify damages and award aid to disaster victims in response to a U.S. Senate investigation into widespread fraud and waste in Miami-Dade County after Hurricane Frances last year.

Damage inspectors will undergo more training and greater scrutiny of their work under reforms implemented by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. People appealing for federal help will be reimbursed only for items such as clothing that are "clearly destroyed, physically gone or contaminated."

Noticeably absent, however, were plans to address other problems the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs found, including the process for declaring areas a disaster. The decision to include Miami-Dade for Frances, which struck three counties to the north, was "questionable" and opened the door for millions of wasted tax dollars, senators concluded.

"This isn't the SATs -- you can't skip the questions just because you don't have the answers," said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Jupiter.

The Senate began investigating after South Florida Sun-Sentinel disclosures that FEMA gave more than $31 million in Frances aid to thousands of Miami-Dade residents.

Contracted FEMA inspectors signed off on claims in Miami-Dade that the Labor Day storm damaged or destroyed 817 vehicles, $2.4 million in clothes and thousands of televisions and appliances. Some residents received checks for the maximum $25,600, the newspaper reported.

So far, 16 Miami-Dade residents have been indicted on charges of fraudulently obtaining FEMA money. A criminal investigation continues, and more arrests are expected.

The Senate committee held a hearing in Washington in May, concluding that FEMA's handling of Miami-Dade claims was a disaster for taxpayers. In a letter last month to FEMA Director Michael Brown, senators outlined 19 recommendations to prevent money from going to people who never suffered a disaster.

Brown responded to the committee late Thursday, thanking senators for their input on FEMA's "successful response and recovery efforts following the unprecedented 2004 hurricane season."

In an open letter posted Friday on FEMA's Web site, Brown was unapologetic, declaring the agency's work in Florida "one of our best response efforts." He referred to the reforms as routine "tweaks." FEMA posted a summary of the changes titled "Building on Success."

"It's really quite troubling that after all of this time and after everything uncovered from the situation in Miami-Dade that the director of FEMA still says that nothing happened," said Lale Mamaux, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton.

The Senate committee declined comment through a spokeswoman. FEMA officials did not respond to phone messages or an e-mail.

The changes generally require more proof of damages and that losses were actually caused by a disaster.

Under the new policies, families seeking money to bury or cremate loved ones will need documentation from a coroner or private doctor attributing the death to the disaster and a death certificate. FEMA faced criticism after the Sun-Sentinel reported in April that the government approved 315 hurricane funeral claims even though coroners reported only 123 deaths caused by the storms.

Rental assistance will no longer be given to applicants with disaster damage without proof they have to move while repairs are made. After last year's hurricanes, FEMA gave out $188 million in rental assistance in Florida, FEMA records show. Federal auditors reviewing the Miami-Dade payments found no evidence that people who got rental assistance actually relocated.

Several changes are aimed at the privately contracted inspectors FEMA sends to applicants' homes to verify damages and the two companies that hire them. FEMA relied on inspectors with only a few hours of training, some of whom had criminal records that included convictions for theft, robbery and fraud, the Sun-Sentinel reported. FEMA said it would "re-emphasize" background checks with its contractors, improve training and require inspectors to pass an online test before doing inspections. The agency also is taking steps to ensure the contractors review claims before submitting them to the government.

Last year in Florida, "there was no verification that I know of," U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, said in an interview Friday. "When you're talking about this much money, you've got to have strong evaluations in place," he said. "We just didn't have it."

Since February, FEMA has armed its inspectors with digital cameras to photograph disaster damage. The agency reviews the photos to "verify the inspector's visit," according to FEMA's summary of changes.

FEMA also provided additional guidance to inspectors for identifying damage caused by a disaster. In response to a Senate committee recommendation to address fraud-prone claims, FEMA is now requiring proof that appliances were damaged by a power surge, such as water in the fuse box or signs of electrical burns.

In Florida last year, FEMA records show inspectors signed off on $22 million worth of damages caused by power surges, often just based on the applicants' word. FEMA has directed inspectors to document damages to vehicles and "fully explain the basis for determining it as disaster-related."

In reviewing Miami-Dade vehicle claims from Frances, federal auditors found no evidence of disaster damage. Two files they reviewed blamed high water though meteorologists reported no flooding in the county from the storm.

Rep. Shaw praised FEMA for closing "some of the loopholes and sloppy practices that have been used in the past."

"If I were to give FEMA a grade for its statewide effort [after the hurricanes], I'd say B-plus," he said. "If I was to give them a grade on Miami-Dade County, I'd give them an F."

Sally Kestin can be reached at skestin@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4510. Megan O'Matz can be reached at momatz@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4518.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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