The federal government used hurricane aid money to pay funeral expenses for at least 203 Floridians whose deaths were not caused by last year's storms, the state's coroners have concluded.
The deaths include a Palm Beach Gardens millionaire recovering from heart surgery who died two days before Hurricane Frances; a Miami baby not yet born when the storm arrived; and a Port Charlotte man who died of cirrhosis and heart failure five months after Hurricane Charley.
In two other cases, coroners could find no record of the people dying.
"I can't begin to tell you what these people did to get some funding," said Rebecca Hamilton, medical examiner for Lee County, where hurricane funeral claims included a hospice patient and two people who died of cancer. "None of those cases were even remotely associated with any kind of a hurricane."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a total of 319 hurricane funeral claims in Florida for $1.3 million. But most of those people died from natural ailments, suicides or accidents unrelated to the storms, the coroners concluded.
Florida's Medical Examiners Commission is expected to discuss the findings at a meeting Thursday on Key Biscayne.
The commission began a review of the deaths after the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported in April that FEMA funeral claims were almost three times higher than the official hurricane death toll.
Statewide, the number of deaths FEMA counted as hurricane-related but which the coroners did not blame on the storms is at least 203. That number could increase because coroners have not completed a review of 33 deaths that brought FEMA payouts, most of them in the Panhandle, and medical examiners did not rule on 10 other people who died outside Florida.
The death review is the first official look at where the funeral money went. FEMA has refused to explain the claims, citing privacy laws, but gave the names of the dead to the medical examiners with a warning not to publicly release them. The commission turned them over to the newspaper after determining they were public documents under Florida law.
Charged with compiling the official list of hurricane deaths, the coroners examined the FEMA cases to see whether they missed any fatalities. The review identified six deaths not previously attributed to the storms, including one man in Broward who died of renal failure after missing dialysis treatments because of Hurricane Frances. In nine other cases, coroners found tenuous connections to the storms.
In Palm Beach County, medical records revealed no storm link in 26 deaths FEMA attributed to the hurricanes, said Medical Examiner Michael Bell. He contacted the doctors who signed the patients' death certificates.
"I asked, `Do you know that this was considered a hurricane-related death?'" Bell said. "For the most part, they had no idea. ... Very few had been contacted by FEMA."
In Miami-Dade County, FEMA paid seven Hurricane Frances funeral claims, but the Labor Day weekend storm was not to blame for any of the deaths, said Medical Examiner Bruce Hyma. A toddler drowned in a swimming pool before Frances hit, and the others died of natural causes, Hyma concluded.
Tremayne Ward Jr. was still in his mother's womb when the storm brushed by Miami. The 21-day-old infant died Oct. 13 of an infection, "clearly not storm-related," Hyma said.
Truck driver Jerry Watkins, 60, of Webster, Fla., had a history of heart disease. While in South Florida making a delivery, he suffered a heart attack, collapsed and died Oct. 14, weeks after Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. "No hurricane was evident," Broward Medical Examiner Joshua Perper concluded.
Watkins' widow, Joan, told the Sun-Sentinel that a week before he died, her husband's truck hit a tree downed by one of the storms and the impact affected a stent in his heart. FEMA awarded her almost $6,000 after a doctor linked his heart attack to the accident.
FEMA funeral assistance also covered six suicides, including that of Delbert M. Copeland, 42, of Lady Lake in central Florida. He died Sept.7 in the Withlacoochee State Forest after shooting himself in the head. "Distraught over business indebtedness," coroner records say.
Ten people were not in Florida at the time of their deaths, including Brant Moskowicz, 40, of Boca Raton. He died in a head-on collision Sept. 7 in Ashburn, Ga., when the driver of a Ford Ranger crossed a median and hit his Nissan Altima, according to traffic reports.
Officials found no death certificates for two people FEMA identified as having died in Florida, including Airaden R. White in Broward County. Unless FEMA misspelled the names or the people died in another state, Florida should have a death certificate on file, coroners said.
"It's an interesting mystery," Perper said. "There is a claim by somebody, and they [FEMA] should find out what is going on."
FEMA did not respond to requests for comment on the coroners' findings or the missing death certificates.
For months, the agency has faced criticism for being too loose with tax dollars after the storms. A U.S. Senate committee and federal auditors found widespread waste in the $31 million FEMA gave to residents of Miami-Dade County, who experienced no hurricane.
In response to concerns by the Senate committee, FEMA on Friday announced several changes to its disaster assistance program, including how it awards funeral money. Applicants must now prove they are legally "next of kin" to the deceased. They also must provide signed documentation from a coroner or doctor attributing the death to the disaster, a death certificate and evidence that "funeral expenses have not been met by other resources."
Under federal guidelines, FEMA is only supposed to pay funeral expenses for deaths "that are a direct result of a disaster."
After last year's hurricanes, FEMA officials said they relied on coroners, news stories, family doctors, police and paramedics in deciding whether to pay a funeral claim. Agency officials told the Gainesville coroner that anyone who died in a FEMA-provided trailer, regardless of the cause, could receive funeral benefits. "FEMA is counting `storm-related' any person who dies while receiving services such as housing from FEMA," Larry Bedore, the coroner's director of operations, wrote in a June 14 e-mail to the Medical Examiners Commission.
Several families told the Sun-Sentinel they gave FEMA letters from doctors saying stress from the hurricanes might have contributed to deaths that coroners found were from heart disease and other natural ailments.
Some of the funeral claims FEMA approved:
Kenneth Terrell, 52, of Port Charlotte, died of liver cirrhosis and heart failure Jan. 11 -- five months after Hurricane Charley. The coroner found no connection to the storm, but Terrell's wife thought stress from the hurricane shortened his life.
"The hurricane just flipped him for a loop," Deborah Terrell said.
Her husband was hospitalized in December with kidney stones and then developed an infection. A FEMA worker told his wife she could receive funeral assistance with a note from a doctor.
Terrell, a former nurse, said she provided "a cheat sheet" for the doctor. He wrote that although the hurricane was not responsible for her husband's medical problems, stress "caused his body to become deteriorated, making it difficult to fight infection." FEMA paid about $300 for Terrell's cremation, his widow said.
Sheldon Solodar, 75, of Palm Beach Gardens, underwent heart surgery in July. He died Sept. 2 at St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach, two days before Hurricane Frances hit. His death certificate lists the manner of death as natural due to heart problems and an infection.
His widow, Jacqui Solodar, said she thinks the hospital was short-staffed while preparing for Frances. "My husband had an episode and there was no one there to take care of him," she said.
The hospital disagrees, saying it was "more than adequately staffed," said spokeswoman Patti Patrick.
Two weeks after her husband's burial, Jacqui Solodar said she reported the death to FEMA. A caseworker visited her home, she said, and within days she received $7,500, the maximum funeral payout.
Sheldon Solodar, who had run a paperboard company, left an estate worth $2 million, court records show.
Jacqui Solodar acknowledged she didn't need the FEMA money but felt entitled because she blames the hurricane for her husband's death. "If somebody doesn't think it was a rightful thing, may they never have to live through this," she said.
Zigmund A. Milos, 80, a seasonal Vero Beach resident, died of a heart attack at his other home in Denton, Texas, on Nov. 27.
Milos had not been in Florida for the storms that struck two months earlier, said his widow, Grace Milos. He went to Vero Beach a few weeks after Hurricane Jeanne to inspect the extensive damage to their home, she said, then returned to Texas a few weeks later.
Her husband, who had a history of heart problems, died the morning they were to leave for another visit to Florida. "We were all packed and ready to go," she said.
Grace Milos said she gave FEMA a letter from her husband's Florida cardiologist that connected his heart attack to stress from the hurricanes. She could not remember how much money she received from FEMA but said it covered most of her husband's funeral expenses.
Bell, the Palm Beach County coroner, said FEMA should rely on medical examiners in approving funeral payments after hurricanes.
"We're clearly the most objective," he said. "To make decisions based just on what the family says, or what the treating physician says or what FEMA wants to do, is less than optimal."
Sally Kestin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4510. Megan O'Matz can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4518. Staff Researchers Barbara Hijek and Jeremy Milarsky contributed to this report.
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