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Probe sought into questionable aid to Miami-Dade 'hurricane victims'
Three Florida members of Congress on Monday called for investigations into how the federal government awards disaster aid and why at least 9,800 Miami-Dade applicants have received more than $21 million in Hurricane Frances assistance even though the storm inflicted little damage in the county.
"When impacted areas are going without, and people who had no damage whatsoever are finding their way into the federal treasury, it's outrageous," said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican whose district includes hard-hit areas of the Treasure Coast that so far have received less than Miami-Dade residents. "It warrants a full-fledged investigation, because that's a lot of money."
Foley said he plans to ask the federal Government Accountability Office to audit hurricane aid awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, sent a letter Monday to the head of FEMA requesting an accounting of the money spent so far, and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he would ask the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs to investigate.
They were responding to a South Florida Sun-Sentinel report Sunday that more than 19,500 Miami-Dade residents sought FEMA grants for housing repairs, replacement household items and other storm-related needs from Frances, which hit during Labor Day weekend -- more than 100 miles to the north. In Miami-Dade, the storm brought wind and rain comparable to a bad thunderstorm.
As of Friday, FEMA had handed out $21.5 million in tax-free grants to Miami-Dade residents, almost double the amount sent to Indian River County, which was hit directly by Frances.
"I am disgusted in what I read over the weekend in how these precious dollars are being distributed," Shaw wrote to FEMA Director Michael Brown, attaching the newspaper article. "In my judgment, what has occurred is a gross disparity."
In an interview Monday, Shaw said he was particularly disturbed that a Sun-Sentinel survey of Miami-Dade County and all 34 municipalities found no hard-hit areas and fewer than 100 damaged homes.
"Other than some electricity going out, I don't think they have anything to complain about," Shaw said. "Even the public officials expressed surprise you could run up $21 [million]. ... I can't totally condemn them, but on its surface it certainly looks bad."
He asked Brown "to investigate the distribution of these FEMA dollars" and provide a county-by-county analysis of claims.
Saying he had not seen Shaw's letter, Brown declined to comment when reached Monday at his home in Alexandria, Va. He also declined to discuss Miami-Dade damage claims.
FEMA officials said last week they planned to review the claims after the newspaper pointed out the volume and amount paid.
"They haven't told me what they've found so far," FEMA spokesman Jess Seigal said. "Folks are looking at it. It's not just the people who do the processing themselves. It has been elevated."
Drawing any conclusions is premature, said Mary Hudak, an Atlanta-based spokeswoman for FEMA's Southeast region. The agency will not be finished processing assistance applications until at least mid-December.
She then suggested that damage in Miami-Dade might not be obvious. Some recipients might have lost major appliances in power surges or fled the county and then had damage to their vehicle from the storm. Or maybe they have less insurance than residents in other counties, she said. FEMA aid is reserved for expenses not covered by insurance.
Hudak defended the agency's process for awarding claims, saying it results in reaching "the greatest number of disaster victims."
FEMA had been providing a daily tally by county of assistance applications and approved claims. Monday, agency officials said they did not have current numbers because they were updating their reporting system.
Foley wants more accountability, saying he has "huge concerns" about Miami-Dade claims.
"There has to be better oversight," he said. "Just because it's a storm doesn't mean we open the floodgates of cash. We're not talking about one or two claims. ... This seems to be an abusive pattern that needs to be rectified."
Congress has approved more than $13 billion in hurricane aid, much of it intended for Florida, since the first of four storms struck the state's west coast Aug. 13.
The state's members of Congress fought to bring that money to Florida storm victims, competing against Midwestern states seeking assistance for farmers battling droughts and flooding.
"We were insistent that money went to Florida because of the desperate need some people have for these resources," Foley said. "To have citizens who actually apply and are recipients of money that could be desperately needed elsewhere is reprehensible."
Nelson said FEMA must be more forthcoming about its hurricane spending. "That's why the Congress will have to keep a tight leash on them to get the answers and demand the answers and use the subpoena power if necessary," he said Monday.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the committee Nelson is asking to investigate FEMA spending, could not be reached Monday.
"When you're spending billions of dollars, there's got to be tight restrictions and controls," Nelson said. "One of the reasons for a review is to make sure that the money got to the people who need it, the help. That's the purpose of the FEMA disaster relief."
Sally Kestin can be reached at skestin@sun-sentinel. com or 954-356-4510.