The four hurricanes that pummeled the rest of Florida hardly brushed Miami-Dade County. Only Hurricane Frances was a factor there -- packing the punch of a bad thunderstorm.
Local officials described the damage as minimal. Yet more than 19,500 Miami-Dade residents have applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help with temporary housing, repairs, medical bills and other expenses they say were brought on by the storm. As of Friday, FEMA had approved 9,801 of those claims for a total of $21.5 million.
"Where are these people?" asked Annette Barket, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross of Greater Miami and the Keys. "We have responded to about 100 calls ... all minimal assistance. There's a huge disparity there."
That disparity, pointed out to FEMA by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, prompted agency officials Friday to say they planned to review the Miami-Dade claims. Citing privacy laws, FEMA officials will not identify applicants or recipients of disaster aid, or even provide a breakdown more specific than the county where they live.
"We just pay the claims that come in and are eligible," said FEMA spokesman Jess Seigal. "I don't know that we track where this is going."
Since Charley struck Aug. 13, followed by Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, the federal and state governments have poured more than $1 billion into Florida for hurricane assistance, with more on the way in one of the biggest disaster relief efforts in the nation's history.
A Sun-Sentinel county-by-county review of FEMA claims paid so far, estimated private insurance losses and damage assessments shows Miami-Dade has received a disproportionate share of the aid for Hurricane Frances relief.
FEMA payouts in Miami-Dade as of Friday were almost four times higher than in Broward County, which was closer to the storm's eye, and even more than in parts of the Treasure Coast that took direct hits from both Frances and Jeanne.
"I didn't even know they had a hurricane down there," said Dennis Grim, building official in St. Lucie County, where losses are expected to top $3.5 billion and almost 17,000 homes and buildings suffered damage. "I know I've talked to a lot of frustrated people that got zip from FEMA."
Just to the north in Indian River County, the storms flattened mobile-home parks, ripped off roofs and walls of homes, and left thousands without power for weeks. The tally so far, from state and county officials: more than 49,000 residences damaged or destroyed and at least $214 million in private insurance claims.
Almost 14,000 Indian River residents had received $20.5 million in FEMA help as of Friday for Frances and Jeanne, $1 million less than what Miami-Dade got for one storm.
"They got $20 million? For how many residents?" Indian River County Administrator Joe Baird said earlier last week. "I'm a little disappointed with those numbers. Actually, I'm very disappointed."
In Miami-Dade, private insurance claims from Frances will reach only about $22 million, according to estimates insurance companies provided to the state as of Oct. 1. County and city officials contacted by the Sun-Sentinel said they knew of no hard-hit areas and were unaware of FEMA's largesse.
"That's amazing," said Julio Robaina, a developer and council president of Hialeah in north Miami-Dade, where Frances' effects would have been harshest. "You'd figure if there was damage, the majority would be here. I can tell you that I travel the whole northwest Dade corridor and I didn't see any area that had been affected tremendously."
FEMA officials could not explain the number of Miami-Dade claims.
"If they've been paid, they're legitimate," Seigal said. "I don't have any specific information on why they got more. ... There's a lot of different factors involved -- cost of the property, maybe more of those folks are getting the maximum allowable than some of these others. But there is no way to tell just looking at these figures."
Seigal said that he did pass along the Sun-Sentinel's "observation" to claims reviewers to look into. "I think you're trying to make something out of nothing," he said. "But you're right. Miami-Dade probably didn't have the severe damage that you're seeing in some of these harder hit areas. That's something we have to look at to really know what the answer is. ... That will take some time."
The purpose of the FEMA assistance to individuals is to provide "money and services to people in a disaster area when losses are not covered by insurance and property has been damaged or destroyed," according to the FEMA Web site.
Through tax-free grants, FEMA will pay for housing needs, including repairs, up to $5,100. The government also will pay disaster-related medical and dental bills, funeral expenses, replacement clothing and household items, moving and storage costs, and damage to vehicles, with a cap of $20,500.
FEMA is confident approved claims are legitimate "because there have been quality controls put in there," Seigal said.
Before a claim is paid, FEMA sends an inspector to verify damage. That work, however, is done mostly by contractors the agency refuses to identify.
"We don't talk about contractors," Seigal said. "We just don't discuss who they are."
Bob Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, said the government needs to do a better job accounting for the money it is spending on hurricane relief.
"This is an election year, and everybody is falling over themselves to look good," said Hunter, former head of the national flood insurance program. "You do have to be careful you don't get hoodwinked."
A Sun-Sentinel survey of Miami-Dade officials in all 34 municipalities and the county identified two apartment buildings with roof damage from Frances and a few homes partially crushed by fallen trees.
Carlos Cittadini and seven of his neighbors lost their belongings and were left homeless when Frances blew off part of the roof of the pink, two-story Park Isle Club apartments in Miami Beach.
"The wind was not that strong," said Cittadini, a painter from Uruguay who shared the one-bedroom apartment with his wife and three young children. "Nothing happened, but those apartments are old."
Cittadini used his $6,600 FEMA check to replace furniture, a television and computer, he said.
The Red Cross opened a shelter for residents from 18 units of the Kendall Apartments that also suffered roof damage, but "no one ended up staying there," Barket said. The Red Cross helped a total of about 35 storm victims throughout the county with food, clothing and housing.
The National Weather Service knew of no significant damage to Miami-Dade. During Frances, top sustained winds, the maximum recorded lasting for at least a minute, reached 43 mph at Miami International Airport and 47 mph in Kendall. The highest recorded gust was 59 mph at the airport, which also measured 3.5 inches of rain.
"It was like a severe thunderstorm," said Jim Lushine, a meteorologist in the service's Miami bureau. "Once you start getting gusts of 58 [mph], you start getting trees fall down, or maybe a power line. ... In general, there wasn't anything we would consider strong wind or rain."
The county's Office of Emergency Management used damage reports from residents to compile a map showing some flooding and mostly minor problems throughout the county -- fewer than 100 total.
"It was basically just trees down, power out and street lights down," said emergency management spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez. "Not any major flooding -- very, very minimal flooding."
The city of Miami, the largest municipality in the county, had fewer than a dozen buildings with minor damage. "There was nothing really noteworthy that I remember," said Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Fernandez, who is also the city's emergency manager.
"We didn't even have any flooding or anything," said Lillian Delgado, spokeswoman for Homestead in the southern part of the county. "Honestly, I wouldn't think anywhere in Dade there would have been enough damage to justify that kind of money."
"Twenty million dollars?" said Eric Soroka, city manager of Aventura, an upscale community of high-rises along the Intracoastal Waterway in northeastern Miami-Dade. "Geez. I can't imagine. That's a good one."
Even Medley, in northwest Miami-Dade where almost everyone lives in storm vulnerable mobile homes, came away unscathed.
"This is a trailer park we're talking about," said one resident, Griselia DiGiacomo, 37. "There's no damage whatsoever. None."
Told how much aid FEMA had given out to Miami-Dade residents, DiGiacomo scoffed. "That's not right," she said.
FEMA assistance may have gone to some in the county who lost power and had to move temporarily from their homes, Seigal said.
"If you were displaced because of the storm or if power was out and you had to go somewhere, you may be eligible for assistance," he said. "That's a possibility."
Frances knocked out power to 423,400 Miami-Dade customers of Florida Power & Light Co., the company reported. That's fewer than the 590,600 who lost electricity in Broward County.
Noel Boxer, a Washington-based FEMA spokesman temporarily assigned to South Florida, suggested that "perhaps it's because Miami-Dade was hit so hard by Hurricane Andrew -- folks may be more familiar with FEMA."
Seigal speculated that harder hit areas like the Treasure Coast may be getting aid from other sources, such as low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration.
The SBA has approved more loans in some battered areas -- $1.2 million in Indian River County, for instance. That puts Indian River about even with Miami-Dade in total assistance to residents.
It will be months before all hurricane assistance claims are resolved. Some requests in the Treasure Coast may be more complicated and take longer to approve, Seigal said.
If FEMA finds it has given assistance to undeserving recipients, Hialeah Councilman Roberto Casas said, "I sure would get real mad."
"That's taxpayers' money," said Casas, a former state senator. "If they are doing that, they should fire everyone in that department. Everyone. How much will be left for the people who really need it?"
Carmen Spelorzi, clerk of Biscayne Park Village in north Miami-Dade, worries funds will dry up for future disasters.
"When we do need it, there definitely won't be any money," she said. "Eventually, we end up paying for all this. The taxes, not only state but federal, everything will go up."
And it's feared that the reputation of Miami-Dade -- where dead people have voted and public officials have gone to jail for corruption and then been re-elected -- will be further tarnished.
"We'll not be trusted again," Spelorzi said. "I don't want this area to be remembered as Scam City, USA."
Staff Writer Madeline Baró Diaz and staff researchers John Maines and Barbara Hijek contributed to this report. Sally Kestin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4510.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times