FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The federal government's mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe is only the latest bungling in a national disaster-response system that for years has been fraught with waste and fraud.
A South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigation has found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency in five years poured at least $330 million into communities spared the devastating effects of fires, hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes.
In the country's poorest city neighborhoods, disaster assistance is considered an entitlement. Taxpayer money meant to help victims recover from catastrophes, instead has gone to thousands of people who suffered little or no damage, including these cases:
Los Angeles-area residents got $5.2 million for 2003 wildfires, which burned more than 25 miles away.
People in the Detroit area got $168.5 million for a 2000 rainstorm that the man who was mayor at the time, Dennis Archer, doesn't even remember.
Funding of $21.6 million for clothing losses alone went to Cleveland residents for a 2003 storm that brought less than an inch and a half of rain.
Fraud and waste in federal disaster aid was exposed last year, when FEMA distributed $31 million in Hurricane Frances relief to Miami-Dade County residents who experienced no hurricane conditions. US senators and federal auditors, reacting to those reports, feared similar problems had occurred in disasters throughout the country.
The Sun-Sentinel, in a special report, examined 20 of the 313 disasters declared by FEMA from 1999 through 2004, selecting cities where the agency's inspectors said they had encountered large-scale fraud. Of the $1.2 billion FEMA paid in those disasters, 27 percent went to areas where official reports showed only minor damage or none at all, the report found.
''It's so disturbing because we have urgent needs to help individuals who truly are the victims of disasters," said Senator Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine. ''I think it erodes public support for disaster assistance when there is a pattern of wasteful and abusive spending."
As chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Collins investigated FEMA's Miami-Dade payments and is now leading a congressional inquiry into the federal response to Katrina. FEMA declined to answer questions about the newspaper's findings.
''Disaster assistance is provided at the specific request of a governor, and we are constantly evaluating our programs," FEMA spokeswoman Nicol D. Andrews said in an e-mail to the paper. ''While always mindful of the generosity of the nation's taxpayers, FEMA's first priority remains the health and safety of disaster victims."
In impoverished neighborhoods from California to the Carolinas, from Florida to Michigan, the newspaper found the same patterns. Residents call FEMA assistance ''free money," ''easy money," and ''mobility money." Scamming FEMA is widely known and openly discussed.
In Cleveland's recreation centers, barbershops, and day care centers, residents said people hauled old clothes and furniture into their basements and told FEMA the items were damaged by flooding from the 2003 storm. City officials documented 73 homes with minor damage, yet the federal government gave 28,500 Cleveland-area residents $41.4 million.
''We didn't have much flooding in the city," said Tom Marsalis, deputy commissioner of Cleveland's Division of Water Pollution Control. ''Basically, that was a normal storm for us."
Julie Cobb, 37, whose southeast Cleveland neighborhood received $6.6 million from FEMA, said ''everybody was talking about it on the bus."
''All you had to do was tell FEMA stuff was ruined, and they'd send you a check," Cobb said. ''If you had a little water in the basement, you could throw some stuff down there and get some money for it."
In Baton Rouge, FEMA was a familiar and welcome sight long before the Louisiana capital was inundated with Katrina evacuees. In 2002, Hurricane Lili damaged towns on the bayous but spared Baton Rouge, about 70 miles inland.
Yet FEMA gave $15.4 million to 13,714 parish residents in and around Baton Rouge.
On front porches and in grocery stores, word spread of a government handout that came without hassles.
''Oh, man, it's easy," Elias Chaney, 49, of Baton Rouge said neighbors had told him. ''Get you a new TV. Get your own sofa set. Ain't no red tape."
Baton Rouge residents told the Sun-Sentinel of neighbors ripping siding off to fake storm damage and then repairing it after FEMA inspectors left. Chaney said he knew of people passing broken televisions from one applicant to another, each claiming the television, and telling the government it had been ruined by the storm.
In Los Angeles after the 2003 wildfires in surrounding areas, smoke was the key. Tell FEMA that smoke ruined your television or messed up the paint job on your car, residents said.
''All you've got to do is say something was damaged," said Tasha Williams, a 26-year-old mother of three and tenant of Imperial Courts, a public housing development in the Watts section of Los Angeles. ''It's free money."
In Michigan, a September 2000 storm flooded thousands of homes in the suburbs south of Detroit. State records in support of a presidential disaster declaration do not mention any problems within Detroit city limits, and water officials reported no spike in complaints for flooding or sewer backups.
FEMA's response -- $168.5 million to 87,624 Detroit residents -- was one of the ''largest individual assistance declarations in US history," a Michigan state report said.