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FEMA audit finds hurricane aid errors

Unqualified applicants got $31m, report says

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave more than $31 million to thousands of Floridians who may not have qualified for disaster aid after Hurricane Frances, one of several findings of an audit that said the aid system was vulnerable to fraud.

The finding, released to a Senate committee yesterday, said FEMA granted requests for aid in Miami-Dade County on verbal assurances, without proof of ownership or damage, such as repair receipts.

''It was a pay-first-ask-questions-later approach," said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who is chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

With another active hurricane season on the horizon, ''we cannot sweep such allegations under the rug," Collins added. ''This issue has ramifications that are relevant to future disaster relief efforts in all regions of our country."

FEMA chief Michael D. Brown said he regretted the findings, but said such problems are not widespread in his agency.

The allegations were based on ''marginal cases" and did not reflect the typical response to disasters by the agency, Brown told the Senate committee.

The report came from the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General, which said the questionable payments were the latest in a string of evidence that the agency's payout system is vulnerable to widespread waste, fraud, and abuse.

Richard L. Skinner, the department's acting inspector general, called the issue ''programmatic, systemwide weaknesses."

''What we found here are just indicative or representative of the problems we have on a nationwide basis," Skinner said.

As for FEMA's claim that the problems are not widespread, Skinner said much of the wrongdoing is hard to prosecute. ''It could be widespread, just not prosecutable," he said.

Inspectors recommended that FEMA take a range of steps to tighten assessment standards and safeguards against abuse. Many of the charges were first reported by the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Florida.

FEMA designated Miami-Dade County eligible for individual assistant grants without a document assessment of damages or analyses of the impact of Frances -- later widely described as that of a typical thunderstorm. Frances's most damaging winds hit well north of Miami-Dade.

''This situation, along with the previous and subsequent hurricanes, strained FEMA's inspection resources, tested program controls, and made [the grant program] more susceptible to potential fraud, waste, and abuse," the report found.

Congress began investigating at the request of Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida whose office took complaints from legitimate victims who had not received full payment.

Questionable payouts

At least $9 million in rental assistance to 4,985 county residents without proof that the applicants met the criteria for aid. FEMA officials said they are reviewing inspection procedures and guidelines.

$720,000 to 228 applicants for personal property items based only on the applicants' verbal descriptions of the losses. FEMA agreed that documentation of items discarded could be improved and pledged to research alternatives.

$97,500 to replace 15 automobiles with a combined Blue Book value of $56,140, and other questionable automobile repair costs. FEMA agreed to improve its criteria and documentation for car repairs and replacement, but said the market value of cars is not its criteria for awards, but rather the cost of replacement transportation.

$15,743 for three funerals the review concluded may not have been storm related.

SOURCE: ASSOCIATED PRESS

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