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FEMA controversy may result in tougher critieria for declaring disaster area
A South Florida member of Congress wants to require the federal government to verify damage before declaring areas a disaster, a step bypassed in Miami-Dade County last fall that led to residents collecting $31 million in aid for a hurricane that struck 100 miles away.
Government auditors found the Federal Emergency Management Agency lacked the authority to forgo damage assessments in Miami-Dade after the Labor Day weekend storm and made the decision contrary to a presidential order, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Sunday. U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, wants to prevent that from happening again with legislation he plans to introduce to require FEMA to measure damages first.
"In places where the damage is minimal at best, FEMA ought to certainly redirect its resources to places that need it the most," David Goldenberg, Hastings' legislative director, said Monday. "If they're not going to do it on their own, it's Congress' job to tell them to do it."
The declaration allowed almost 13,000 Miami-Dade residents to collect disaster aid for appliances, rooms full of furniture, cars and other items they claimed were ruined by Frances, which brought only tropical storm force wind and rain no heavier than a thunderstorm to the county.
The declaration and subsequent aid payments will be the focus of a U.S. Senate committee hearing Wednesday in Washington. The session before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is being billed as: "FEMA's Response to the 2004 Florida Hurricanes: A Disaster for Taxpayers?"
Waste not tolerated
Scheduled to testify are: U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat; FEMA chief Michael D. Brown; and Richard Skinner, inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security.
"This hearing will expose serious problems within certain areas of FEMA," Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the ranking Democrat, said Monday. "It is our job as members of [the committee] to oversee government functions and to make sure agencies are operating efficiently and effectively. We will not tolerate waste or abuse of any sort, and I expect that message will be expressed at our hearing loud and clear."
During the hearing, Skinner is expected to address the results of an audit prepared by his office. The review found that FEMA gave money to people to replace objects they never owned; approved claims without proof that losses were due to the hurricane; paid for the funerals of people whose deaths were not directly related to the hurricane; and provided little oversight and training of inspectors.
A grand jury indicted 14 Miami-Dade County residents in March on charges of lying to collect hurricane funds. On Monday, Sherry Richardson of Homestead became the seventh to plead guilty to wire fraud. She admitted filing a false FEMA application to collect $19,337 for damage to a house she had moved out of before the storm hit, court records state. Sentencing is set for Sept. 7.
The flow of aid into Miami-Dade initially outpaced assistance to parts of the Treasure Coast that took direct hits from hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, the Sun-Sentinel reported last fall.
"We were astonished because we felt that Miami-Dade suffered very little damage from the hurricanes, and our community was devastated," Indian River County Administrator Joe Baird said Friday.
In October, storm victims in Indian River had collected $12.5 million, while Miami-Dade residents had taken in $21.5 million.
"It was irritating to see they were getting all that money and resources ... when we needed them," Baird said.
All along, FEMA has defended the declaration of Miami-Dade as a disaster area and has insisted that the awarding of aid was legitimate.
In its response to the inspector general's audit, FEMA called most of the findings "at best misleading." The agency also contended that changing the way it distributes aid as auditors recommended would slow down assistance to legitimate victims.
Speed and accuracy
"FEMA recognizes the need to be a good steward of taxpayer resources," the agency said in its response to the audit. "However, we are concerned that some of the [changes] ... would significantly delay the delivery of urgently needed disaster assistance."
U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Jupiter, thinks FEMA can be both quick and accurate.
"We understand their need for urgency and we want them to be expeditious, but we also want them to be careful," he said in an interview last week. "Speed is no excuse."
Foley's district was hit by three of last year's four hurricanes.
In a statement to the committee, he said the inspector general's report and the indictments are "clear evidence of FEMA's need to reform its payment process."
Sen. Nelson, who pressed for the hearing, released a statement Monday saying: "It's our hope the hearing will force FEMA to become more accountable with its handling of disaster relief. We need to ensure taxpayer dollars are going to actual storm victims and not being siphoned off to pay for questionable claims."
Megan O'Matz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4518. Sally Kestin can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4510.