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FEMA Payouts Called ‘Huge Waste of Money’

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

In the first seven weeks after Hurricane Wilma, $95 million in federal disaster aid went to buy Floridians generators and cleanup items, more than the government spent to fix homes damaged by the October storm.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency paid 117,000 residents under a controversial policy that reimburses anyone, regardless of income, for generators, chain saws, wet/dry vacuums, air purifiers and dehumidifiers, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigation has found.

In Broward County, the reimbursements totaled $41 million, and in Palm Beach County, $19 million -- exceeding the amount FEMA spent on home repairs.

In a ZIP code that includes parts of affluent Weston and Southwest Ranches, 33332, taxpayers paid for generators or chain saws for one in six households.

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The ZIP code 33428, home to the Boca Woods Country Club, received the most in Palm Beach County, $1.1 million.

The payments renewed calls from politicians to change the policy. “The notion that we buy generators is absolutely crazy -- for anyone,” said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). “I just think it’s a huge waste of money.”

State and federal lawmakers have criticized the reimbursements since the Sun-Sentinel reported this month that the cost had exceeded $332 million in Florida the last two hurricane seasons. Claims from the four hurricanes in 2004 totaled $242 million, with most of the money going to middle- and upper-income areas.

The same pattern has continued with Wilma. The newspaper’s analysis of claims as of Dec. 12 found that 58% of the recipients live in ZIP codes with median family incomes above the state’s median of $52,550 a year.

The Wilma claims also demonstrate that FEMA’s practice of reimbursing people more than they paid may be widespread. FEMA reimbursed an average price -- $836 for a generator -- unless an inspector specifically noted the applicant paid less.

Last week, agency spokeswoman Frances Marine called overpayments “the exception and not the rule.”

But of the more than 100,000 generator claims FEMA approved, 99% received the full $836, the Sun-Sentinel found. The claims do not indicate how much applicants paid, but spokesmen for the home improvement chains Lowe’s and Home Depot said their top-selling generators in Florida cost $499 to $699.

“This tells you there’s a huge number of people that FEMA overpaid,” said state Sen. Ron Klein, a Boca Raton Democrat who has asked Florida’s Auditor General to review the payments. “This is millions of dollars once again being thrown out by FEMA.”

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Florida pays 25% of the cost of the reimbursements.

Marine, the FEMA spokeswoman, issued a one-sentence statement Thursday: “We’re going to fix it.”

Asked repeatedly to elaborate, she said in an e-mail Friday: “Over the past several days, you have asked for our reaction/statement regarding the Sun-Sentinel’s finding that a majority of Floridians were reimbursed the fixed amount as opposed to the amount reflected on receipts for generators. Our comment on the generators issue remains: We’re going to fix it.”

FEMA continues to process thousands of Wilma claims. Home repairs and housing assistance can take longer than generator reimbursements because homeowners must file private insurance claims first.

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