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'There's got to be some serious fraud'
The summer of 2003 should have been a boom time for appliance repairs and sales. After all, residents of Cuyahoga County told the federal government that 28,112 washers and dryers were damaged in a July thunderstorm.
"Twenty-eight thousand? If I got 10, I was lucky," said Scott Moyer, owner of Ace Washer & Appliance Service, which operates a mobile repair service in the Cleveland area. "There's got to be some serious fraud going on around here."
Cleveland residents typically keep washers and dryers in their basements, which can flood in heavy rain. But the city of 459,000 -- the largest in Cuyahoga County -- recorded only 73 complaints of flooding from the July storm.
That's according to Tom Marsalis, deputy commissioner of the city's Division of Water Pollution Control, which maintains storm drains. He said thousands of city residents began calling FEMA after the agency advertised assistance on television and in newspapers following the storm.
"I think what really did it was the TV spots," he said.
The July 21 storms, while severe in other areas of northeast Ohio, only brushed Cleveland with 46-mph wind gusts and less than an inch and a half of rain.
Damage in Cuyahoga County was so minimal that county officials initially declined to seek a federal disaster declaration. They later acquiesced, records show, after encouragement from the state.
"I applaud the president for his assistance in helping Ohioans who have suffered through the effects of severe weather," Gov. Bob Taft said in an Aug. 5, 2003 news release announcing aid to Cuyahoga and other counties.
Along with all the washers and dryers, Federal Emergency Management Agency inspectors said Cuyahoga County losses included 5,874 refrigerators and freezers, 4,234 television sets, 1,260 air conditioners and 1,668 lawn mowers.
In all, FEMA paid $44.2 million in Cuyahoga with most of the aid going to poverty-stricken areas of Cleveland. Cuyahoga received more than half of the $74.8 million paid statewide.
Of the 28,112 washers and dryers, Rich Weybrecht, general manager of B&B Appliance of suburban Cleveland, said: "Those numbers are biblical. I don't remember anything about thousands and thousands of washers and dryers being destroyed by a flood."
Residents of Cleveland's east side said fraudulent FEMA claims were widespread in the weeks after the storm as people scrambled to respond to the government's offer of financial help.
In one ploy, residents reported turning off power to appliances, hoping to fool inspectors.
"Flip the (circuit) breaker, nothing works," explained resident Jerome Jackson, 73.
Jackson, a retired storeowner, said he didn't try the scam himself but heard of it from others.
FEMA paid applicants $482 to replace a washer, $366 for a dryer. But Weybrecht, of B&B Appliance, said his sales figures barely show a blip.
"If there was a big increase in sales, I didn't see any of it," he said. His company sold 1,342 washers and dryers from July to September 2003, an increase of only 20 machines from the previous three months.
Demand remained flat throughout the Cleveland area.
"There is no indication of a large increase of shipments of washers and dryers into Cuyahoga County," said Steve Duthie, media relations manager for Whirlpool Corp. He said his tracking information included all manufacturers that sell in Cuyahoga.
David Mayes owns a plumbing business in the heart of Cleveland's ZIP code 44105, where 4,164 residents received $6.6 million in FEMA aid, the most in the state.
"I remember the 2003 storm because business went up a little, but nothing special," Mayes said. "Sure we had rain. But there was nothing out of the norm."
A year later, residents had another opportunity to collect FEMA money. A May 2004 storm brought less than 1.5 inches of rain to Cleveland. City officials reported damage to 125 homes from basement flooding, yet FEMA paid $9.9 million to 12,115 Cleveland area residents. Losses from that storm included 4,006 washers and dryers.
John Maines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4737.