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FEMA payout scrutiny spreads to other states
From Mobile, Ala., to Detroit to rural eastern North Carolina, the federal government has approved millions in assistance to areas largely unaffected by disasters, even after local officials warned of possible fraud.
The $29.2 million sent so far to residents of Miami-Dade County for Hurricane Frances, the Labor Day storm that struck 100 miles to the north, is not an anomaly, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found in its continuing investigation.
"It's just the same nationwide," said Paulette Williams, emergency management director in Mobile County.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave Mobile residents $29.5 million for flooding last year, despite repeated calls and letters from Williams saying that the county suffered no damage.
In southeastern North Carolina, FEMA has approved thousands of Frances claims in counties where the storm caused only minor problems.
"We didn't have any damage," said Mitchell Byrd, emergency management director in Bladen County, where residents have collected $2.5 million. "We've got the biggest case of fraud you've ever seen."
Officials in Wayne County, Mich., learned from the Sun-Sentinel that more than 30,000 of their residents collected $33.9 million for storms in May and June.
"That's just staggering," said Mark Hammond, Wayne County's deputy director for homeland security and emergency management. "I could see 2,000 homes, but not 30,000."
A city councilwoman in Detroit, the biggest city in Wayne County, barely remembered the storm. "I know it happened, but I don't remember that it particularly affected Detroit," said City Council President Maryann Mahaffey.
FEMA defended its handling of disaster claims.
"There are damages that may not be eminently obvious unless you look, part and parcel, at each individual case and take it apart piece by piece," said agency spokeswoman Mary Hudak.
Hudak said she was unfamiliar with the concerns of officials in Michigan and North Carolina and could not comment. She said FEMA has met with Williams several times. "We take seriously all of the information Ms. Williams has brought to our attention," Hudak said.
For eight months after storms spawned tornadoes and flooding in Alabama last year, Williams alerted officials all the way up to FEMA's director, Michael Brown, that Mobile had no problems and yet thousands of residents were collecting disaster aid. All the while, the checks kept rolling in.
"There was every indication that the system was being abused," Williams said in an interview last week. "I was like the lone voice in the wilderness."
Within six weeks after FEMA declared Mobile and 37 other Alabama counties a disaster area, the government had handed out $7 million to Mobile residents.
"We had absolutely no reports [of damage] and the Red Cross only had two," Williams said.
Fraud complaints poured into Williams' office.
"We had reports of people shaking up [soda] bottles and then spraying it on the walls and taking a hose inside," she said. "We had reports of people removing their furniture from their dwellings and putting old furniture back in."
In Miami-Dade County, residents told the Sun-Sentinel that they saw neighbors pouring water over their furniture and damaging their cars and belongings to obtain "free money" from FEMA. The inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security is investigating fraud in the county and anticipates arrests within weeks.
No one was arrested in Mobile even after Williams took her concerns to local officials, Alabama's emergency management agency, FEMA, the U.S. Attorney's office and U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
A day after she met with FEMA representatives in June 2003, the agency issued a news release, acknowledging that "every now and then a person tries to take undue advantage of the disaster assistance system.
"We urge anyone who makes an error when submitting their claim to contact the FEMA Helpline to amend their claim," the June 27, 2003, release said.
Over the next several months, FEMA approved another $22.5 million to Mobile County residents.
On Feb. 12, 2004, Williams wrote Brown at FEMA, saying it was "quite apparent something was wrong in Mobile." She told him about a report from a county engineer about a contracted FEMA inspector "actually insisting that one family had damage when in fact the family had told the inspector that no damage had occurred."
Williams wrote that she had 39 years of experience in emergency management. "I know disasters and Mobile didn't have a disaster of this magnitude," the letter said.
Brown was unavailable for comment to the newspaper, Hudak said Friday.
More than two months passed before Williams received a reply to her letter.
"We have full confidence in our inspection contractors, our quality control process and the range of internal controls in place to ensure that only eligible disaster claims are paid," wrote Daniel Craig, director of the recovery division at FEMA's headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Williams wasn't satisfied.
"To me, this was kind of serious," she said. "I just kept pursuing it."
FEMA invited Williams to a meeting in Atlanta in July and promised to get back to her by the fall, but didn't, Hudak said. FEMA officials were busy with the Florida storms. After Hurricane Ivan hit Alabama Sept. 16, Williams again contacted FEMA.
"I expressed concern that I thought the same thing was happening in the application process with Ivan," Williams said.
Ivan made landfall in Gulf Shores, Baldwin County, east of Mobile.
"There was damage in Mobile County, but it was primarily a lot of trees down and power lines," said Don Shepherd, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mobile. "It wasn't as significant as it was in Baldwin County."
Yet, FEMA has awarded $49.5 million to Mobile residents for Ivan, nearly twice as much as the $27.7 million so far sent to Baldwin.
A FEMA official told Williams on Oct. 8 that the agency referred her concerns to the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security and would "get back with an update," she said. "Haven't heard anything else."
FEMA is still reviewing Williams' concerns.
"We have assured her we will have continual follow-up and review," Hudak said.
Byrd, the emergency manager in Bladen County, N.C., said he wrote to his state's emergency management agency and a congressman after FEMA included his county in the disaster declaration for Frances. The storm caused flooding in Robeson County, and the governor requested neighboring counties also be made eligible for assistance, Byrd said.
"I said, `Why am I getting disaster assistance when nothing really and truly happened?'" Byrd said. "I asked them to look into it because this is wrong."
The deputy director of the state's emergency management agency met with Byrd and "passed that along to officials at FEMA," said Renee Hoffman, spokeswoman for the North Carolina agency.
"The state's only responsibility is to make FEMA aware," she said. "It's in their hands."
FEMA is investigating, Hoffman said, but has continued to approve claims in Bladen County.
"I got people in low-rent housing paying less than $25 a month [rent] that got $10,000 checks," Byrd said. "Their whole contents aren't worth $10,000."
Privately contracted inspectors FEMA sent to verify damage in Bladen came from all over the country and were unfamiliar with the rural farming community, Byrd said.
One inspector made "some errors in pressing the wrong key" on his computer, Byrd said. "He was giving [residents] the most you could get. Some of these people got $16,000 checks. I think they pulled him from this area."
Another inspector told Byrd that residents in low-income areas of the county left threatening messages on her cell phone after finding out neighbors got more from FEMA. "They said, `If you come back over here, I'm going to cut your tires,'" Byrd said.
"I understand this was a presidential election year," Byrd said. "The response by FEMA had to be outstanding. This was just an outright scam."
Throughout the country, the Sun-Sentinel found FEMA's largesse caught local and state emergency managers by surprise.
"That's got to be a typo," said Hammond, the Wayne County, Mich., official, when told by the newspaper last week the amount of aid FEMA provided residents of his county over the summer. After confirming the payouts, Hammond said he planned to look into "the abnormally high number."
"I'm very concerned," he said. "This is not good. What irks me is they're turning around giving $33 million to residents that didn't have much damage from flooding, and I can't get $5 million for a radio system so we can all talk to each other."
In North Carolina, the emergency manager in Columbus County, Ronnie Hayes, had no idea residents have collected $3.9 million for Frances so far. A tornado touched down during the storm but damaged at most 50 homes, he said.
"We did have some damage," Hayes said. "Did we have $3 million worth? Not in my opinion. I didn't see that. I sure didn't."
In nearby Cumberland and Scotland counties, emergency managers did not think any of their residents had even applied for FEMA assistance after Frances.
"We only had two residents who were impacted at all," said Scotland's director, Roylin Hammond (no relation to Mark).
Yet, FEMA records show 560 residents of Scotland and Cumberland counties applied for aid, receiving $398,442 as of last week.
Similar concerns arose in North Carolina last year after FEMA awarded aid to areas mostly spared by Hurricane Isabel.
Columbus residents collected about $2 million in Isabel assistance even though the county "didn't have any damage," Hayes said.
"We asked questions about it," he said. "We talked with the state people, but the state has nothing to do with it. This is the feds. We just do what Big Brother tells us to do."
Byrd, an emergency manager for 16 years, said FEMA needs to be overhauled.
"This business of bailing people out every time a disaster happens," Byrd said, "it's going to break the United States."
Sally Kestin can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4510.