POST-QUAKE WATCH : Balancing Act

Hours after the Jan. 17 earthquake, officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency were in Los Angeles, assuring victims that housing grants, food stamps, rebuilding loans, even new eyeglasses, were coming. The talk, from all of the agencies on the scene, was soft, reassuring and helpful.

Now, the big stick has come out. People who snatched aid they didn't deserve are getting their comeuppance from a federal task force. A dozen people were arrested Tuesday on charges of making $64,000 in fraudulent claims. A mere drop in the bucket compared to the $1.5 billion disbursed by various federal bodies, but there's more to come. FEMA is mailing dunning letters to 3,000 recipients deemed ineligible for the grants they got. Two thousand checks worth about $6 million have been returned, some of them clearly in response to the federal investigations.

Once again, the attitude of FEMA and its seemingly inexhaustible director, James Lee Witt, is exactly right. "We want the money to 'go to the needy and not the greedy,' " says a FEMA spokesman. "Those who make honest mistakes will not be prosecuted." For those with a gnawing sense of doubt or guilt--hey, there's still time to inquire or return the money.

In the meantime, the computers are whirring in Washington, cross-checking for duplicate applications, odd patterns--anything suspicious. Any huge aid effort will tempt the greedy. But bring the hammer down too hard or too early and truly needy, desperate people will go wanting. FEMA has found the point of balance.

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