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FEMA hustles to clean up its image

Times Staff Writer

Mark Meade never thought he’d need fire insurance for his Ramona mobile home.

Then wildfires in San Diego County destroyed everything Meade and his wife owned, and this week he found an unlikely savior: the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

After several bad years, FEMA is working overtime to burnish its image, and people such as the Meades are the beneficiaries.

The agency bungled disaster assistance after Hurricane Katrina, forcing thousands of needy, low-income victims to wait while scammers claimed millions of dollars in aid, recent audits show.

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FEMA was dinged again last month after staffers in Washington, D.C, staged a fake news conference to discuss the California wildfires.

Emergency management experts say it will be difficult to gauge FEMA’s competence based on its response in Southern California. The wildfires were a much smaller-scale disaster than Katrina, and didn’t wipe out entire towns or cripple vital infrastructure and government, they say.

But Meade, 52, a disabled contractor, gives FEMA good marks. It took him and his wife, Judi Meade, 57, a Qualcomm computer technician, less than a week to apply for and receive $28,800, the maximum FEMA grant available to cover both housing and other needs.

What’s more, with fires still burning in San Diego County last week, 1,857 fire victims in Southern California already had received FEMA aid.

Among them were some of the neediest: the uninsured, elderly, disabled and those on fixed incomes. They and community leaders say FEMA has learned from its mistakes in New Orleans, and has made an effort to speed up payments and prevent fraud.

Meade said his FEMA grant will allow him to buy another mobile home so his family can stay in Ramona.

“I’ve heard stuff about FEMA being slow and that they denied applications” during Katrina, Meade said, but, he added, “We’re satisfied. For a government organization to approve something in six days -- I’m kind of blown away.”

Fire victims are eligible for FEMA aid if they can provide a Social Security number and proof of address in one of the seven counties where the president declared a national disaster last month: Los Angeles, Ventura, San Diego, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara.

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Those with private insurance can apply, but FEMA won’t process their applications until they return with an insurance settlement documenting their coverage and additional needs, according to Jack Schuback, a FEMA individual assistance officer.

FEMA had received 16,686 applications for housing assistance, the bulk of them -- about 10,900 -- from San Diego County, according to the most recent tally completed Sunday. Most of the applicants, about 70%, have private insurance.

FEMA had conducted 6,831 inspections as of Sunday and had processed 5,034 applications for housing assistance. They paid out $5.5 million in housing assistance, Schuback said, with an average grant of $4,700. FEMA and the state also paid fire victims an additional $1.6 million in assistance for other disaster-related needs, such as clothing and tools, he said.

Applicants can apply electronically at a local assistance center. Within 10 days, a FEMA inspector is supposed to contact them, visit their home and file an electronic report of damages, which is sent to Washington, D.C., within minutes.

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The inspector, a private contractor who is required to pass more extensive FEMA training and background checks post-Katrina, checks for proof of residence and identifying information.

Carolyn Kendrick, 47, a San Diego police lieutenant, and her domestic partner, Donna Wescott, 45, a detective, had to go through the process last week with FEMA inspector Dennis Kohli at the burned fishing cottage they rented near Lake Hodges in Escondido.

Although the couple discovered during the inspection that FEMA covers only essential items -- televisions but not Xboxes, tables but not decorative lamps -- they said it will be a big help in piecing their lives back together.

“We’re working girls,” Kendrick said after the 30-minute inspection. “We live paycheck to paycheck. When something like this comes along, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to come up with first, last and deposit, and all I have is the T-shirt and flip flops I’m wearing.’ ”

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Chris Reynolds, a firefighter and program manager for the emergency and disaster management program at American Public University in Charles Town, W. Va., has studied FEMA and said recent improvements have reduced both disaster victims’ wait time and fraud.

“The bureaucracy hasn’t been eliminated, but it’s been reduced significantly,” he said.

Victims of past California wildfires say it will take months to gauge FEMA’s response.

Steven Murray, 54, wrangled with FEMA for months trying to get a trailer after he lost his Lakeside home in the 2003 Cedar fire. When FEMA finally gave him a grant after six months, Murray used it to buy a surplus FEMA trailer online. But a few months later, FEMA tried to make him repay his grant, he said. He appealed, and the case was settled in his favor earlier this year.

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“I’m happy with the outcome; I’m not happy with how it came,” said Murray, who’s been advising fire victims at the Ramona assistance center under a tent outside the FEMA office.

Community leaders said they have been impressed with how visible and responsive FEMA staff has been in the wake of the fires. After hearing complaints that Spanish-speaking fire victims were having trouble understanding FEMA paperwork, some clergy in Fallbrook suggested that officials reach out to the community.

Last week, a Spanish-speaking FEMA staffer and her supervisor visited Spanish and English-language Masses at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Fallbrook. They set up a table outside, distributed informational fliers in both languages, explained the process and even spoke to the congregation after Mass, according to the pastor, the Rev. Edward “Bud” Kaicher.

FEMA personnel walked door to door in burned neighborhoods last week, distributing fliers and answering questions.

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Few complaints had been reported to the governor, the city of San Diego or City Councilman Brian Maienschein, who visits the Rancho Bernardo assistance center daily to chat with fire victims.

Even those who have complaints about FEMA say the benefits outweigh the hassles.

Desiree Desantiago, 22, a physical therapist intern and doctoral student, said she and her boyfriend had their FEMA aid application denied last week because residents in another house on their property already had applied. FEMA suspected fraud.

The couple are appealing. But Desantiago said she appreciates the added security. She was upset to see neighbors unaffected by the fires taking Red Cross debit cards at the Ramona assistance center.

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FEMA hasn’t yet found any cases of fraud associated with the fires, a spokeswoman said, but the Red Cross has.

The Red Cross, like FEMA, updated its fraud detection systems after Katrina, with a real-time database that tracks who is applying for assistance. That database caught a San Diego woman using a former address to pose as a fire victim and claim a debit card worth $460. After the current resident showed up to claim aid, the Red Cross deactivated the woman’s card and forced her to pay restitution.

FEMA eliminated debit cards after problems with fraud during Katrina, and now issues aid by check or direct deposit.

“Things have been fine-tuned and will continue to be improved. It’s kind of a work in progress,” said Ken Higginbotham, the FEMA leader in Rancho Bernardo last week. He added: “There are more checks and balances. This is all part of that learning curve, in learning from our past experiences.”

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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Distributing the funds

Top 10 cities/communities receiving FEMA aid after the California fires

*--* City/Community County Amount Ramona San Diego $1,221,106.26 Dulzura San Diego 867,639.69 Pauma Valley San Diego 818,152.34 Fallbrook San Diego 663,754.41 Valley Center San Diego 418,621.93 Escondido San Diego 331,428.23 Jamul San Diego 282,896.38 Running Springs San Bernardino 212,101.28 Santa Clarita Los Angeles 192,628.03 Potrero San Diego 147,464.33 *--*

Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency

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Los Angeles Times


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