Government aid for Hurricane Frances bought Miami-Dade County residents rooms full of furniture, new wardrobes and thousands of appliances, including microwaves, refrigerators and sewing machines, even though the brunt of the storm missed the county.
With damage limited primarily to a few fallen trees and power lines, residents claimed Frances destroyed 5,260 television sets and 1,440 air conditioners, according to records from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Disaster relief paid for lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, space heaters and cars.
FEMA paid $4,500 for one resident's funeral, even though the county medical examiner recorded no storm-related deaths.
In six instances, FEMA blamed damage on "ice/snow."
"Either this is significant negligence on behalf of FEMA or there is fraudulent or possibly criminal activity going on," U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, said Friday. "Either one is very disturbing."
FEMA's director, Michael D. Brown, declined a request for an interview last week through a spokeswoman, who said he was traveling and unavailable. Agency officials did not answer specific questions about the aid distributed in Miami-Dade and instead released a statement heralding their overall hurricane assistance effort providing food, ice, roof tarps and money to thousands of Floridians.
"We were here within 24 hours of the first hurricane striking Florida," FEMA wrote. "We will remain here as long as it takes."
The amount of disaster relief sent to Miami-Dade, which as of Wednesday had reached almost $28 million, prompted a public outcry and calls by members of congress for investigations after it was first reported in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel last month. The Labor Day weekend storm made landfall in Martin County, more than 100 miles north of Miami-Dade.
FEMA has declined to disclose what the claims were for or identify aid recipients, citing federal privacy laws. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the newspaper obtained claims records from the government that show the type of damage and assistance provided in Miami-Dade, by ZIP code, through Oct. 18.
The records show applicants in a few predominantly poor, inner-city neighborhoods collected as much as $25,600 each, the maximum allowed. Residents in seven ZIP codes mostly west of Interstate 95 received $12.8 million, more than applicants in 67 other ZIP codes combined.
In Liberty City, where one-third of the residents in ZIP code 33142 live below the poverty level, FEMA awarded $3.1 million. In one household, the government paid for a new washer, dryer, freezer, range, refrigerator, television, radio, phone, computer, clothes, furniture, portable space heater, playpen, crib, stroller and toys. Another applicant collected $12,173, including $4,054 for clothes.
To the northwest in an Opa-locka ZIP code, 951 residents -- one in nine households -- received a total of nearly $2 million in FEMA aid.
"What? $2 million? $2 million?" said Armando Martinez, manager of an Opa-locka drive-through TV repair and sales shop. "Wow!"
Martinez's store, which sits about a foot below street level, was unscathed by Frances, and he knew of no problems in the area. "To me, it's like there was no hurricane," he said.
Three major landmarks in the same ZIP code, Opa-locka Airport, Florida Memorial College and St. Thomas University, had no significant damage.
"We have a 120-acre campus and we didn't even have a tree down," said St. Thomas spokeswoman Kathleen Lowe.
In southwest Miami-Dade, officials at Miami Metrozoo, which closed for four months after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, know what a hurricane can do. Frances didn't do it.
"Really, it was nothing more severe than what we've had with a good thunderstorm," said spokesman Ron Magill. "God, Andrew came through here like a 25-mile-wide weed whacker."
In the zoo's ZIP code, more than 120 residents collected $300,250 in Frances relief. "There are some people out there pulling off some big scams," Magill said.
In areas with the highest number of FEMA awards, residents told the Sun-Sentinel their neighbors used buckets and hoses to water down belongings and called it hurricane damage.
Masood Kan, manager of the Arabian Discount Liquor Store in Opa-locka, said he doubted the legitimacy of claims filed by some customers who tried to cash FEMA checks at his store.
One man was homeless and told Kan he used a friend's address to file a claim.
At the Old Hickory Bar, a check-cashing and liquor store in Liberty City, manager Eddie Thornton, who is also a landlord, said he was surprised when one of his tenants arrived to cash a $4,700 FEMA check for damage at one of his properties.
"I own the place and I know there wasn't no damage," Thornton said. "I put the shutters up."
He estimated his store has cashed as much as $500,000 in FEMA checks.
"I think it's helping people, but a lot are just getting money because they can get it," he said from behind bulletproof glass. "I see a lot of checks, but I know in the area [there] wasn't no damage. You think they just paid just to pay."
The grants are part of FEMA's Individuals & Households Program that gives disaster victims housing assistance and money to replace belongings not covered by insurance.
The purpose, according to FEMA's Web site, is to "help prevent or overcome a disaster-related hardship, injury or adverse condition."
In Miami-Dade, 10,786 individuals had received money from the program as of mid-October, including live-aboard boat owners. The government paid one applicant in the waterfront area of Normandy Isle $8,934 for a new air conditioner, refrigerator, range, rental assistance and "hull repair."
Elsewhere, two residents got tax money to see a dentist. The government awarded $2,800 for "dental treatments due to dental injuries received during the disaster."
FEMA paid to replace or fix 604 vehicles "no longer usable" due to the hurricane.
About 4,300 applicants collected $7.9 million in rental assistance "to address the cost of renting another place to live." That included residents whose only documented damage was a broken radio or TV, records show.
Sun-Sentinel reporters and photographers visited neighborhoods with the most claims and spoke to some of the applicants.
FEMA gave Marie Janvier more than $1,400 to pay for a temporary place to live after she said water damaged her mattresses and TV in her second-story apartment at the Gardens, a subsidized housing complex in Opa-locka. Janvier, 51 and unemployed, told the newspaper she never left.
"I stayed here the whole time," she said, adding that she used her disaster assistance to buy a new sofa and rugs.
Furniture and appliances were the most common items Miami-Dade applicants claimed were damaged by Frances. More than half of the assistance FEMA approved in the county, $13 million, went for "personal property."
FEMA inspectors recorded damages to 1,360 twin beds, 1,311 washers and dryers, and 831 dining sets, records show.
As the cause of damage, inspectors cited "tornado-wind" for 195,909 items, although the National Weather Service recorded no tornados in the county during Frances. The top sustained winds reached 47 mph, less than a tropical storm.
Inspectors blamed "sewer backup" in 14,644 instances. The Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Department knew of no problems.
"If there were all these sewer backups all over the place, we would have heard about it," said spokeswoman Toni-Anne Blake.
FEMA inspectors signed off on damage to as many as five television sets in one household. In another, it was three lawn mowers, and in another, two microwaves and two refrigerators, records show.
It was unclear how much FEMA paid in those cases. The government has limits for certain items but would not discuss them, saying in a written response to the newspaper that the information was "exempt from disclosure."
FEMA leaves it up to recipients to spend disaster aid as it was intended. Residents are required to keep receipts, for auditing purposes, for three years.
The government gave Charlucienne Saintange, a tenant at the Gardens in Opa-locka, $1,187 to replace belongings in her living room and a bedroom that she said were damaged by standing water. She said she used the money to buy a used king size mattress, two twin beds and a dresser for $1,200. She had no receipts.
"They didn't say we had to keep receipts," Saintange said.
Neighbor Kim Harris said she used FEMA money to replace a 27-inch TV damaged in the storm. She produced a Sept. 13 receipt from BrandsMart USA showing she bought a vacuum, frying pan and hand mixer, but no television.
"I'm surprised it's not on here," said Harris, 37. "It should have been on here because I purchased it at the same time."
In her ZIP code, FEMA inspectors recorded 257 damaged or broken televisions.
But Martinez, whose TV business sits on a busy Opa-locka intersection, said at most three customers mentioned storm damage.
"As I recall, last month was a pretty slow month," he said. "What a country."
Sally Kestin can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4510.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times