WASHINGTON – The four successive hurricanes that hit Florida last fall not only left an aftermath of death, property destruction and uncertain futures, but also created a political strain on the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA's job is to provide a safety net for people whose lives have been left in the rubble by natural disasters and to lend a helping hand on the road to recovery. These days, however, it seems as though the agency is seeking its own rescue from a litany of complaints about its post-disaster relief, ranging from overpayments, fraud, payment delays and home inspectors with criminal records.
"It can at times hurt morale," said Daniel Craig, director of FEMA's recovery division in Washington D.C., noting that people quickly forget the agency's rapid response last fall when Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne hit Florida within a five-week period. "We believe FEMA did a fantastic job."
But with the 2005 hurricane season set to begin on June 1, members of the Florida congressional delegation say they believe FEMA has room for improvement. Hearings spurred by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson (search) begin on Wednesday in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and legislation addressing FEMA's post-disaster relief is circulating.
"I am very concerned with how a lot of the public assistance is being managed and handled at this point," said Republican Rep. Connie Mack (search), whose district was hit.
"FEMA did a fantastic job immediately after the hurricanes," he added, "but as we move farther away from the event and more into a recovery … we're running into some roadblocks, and frankly I have a hard time understanding why the roadblocks are there."
The hurricanes cost billions of dollars in damages, overtime services, temporary shelters and other services for victims. A total of 123 lives were lost due to the storms.
"You drive around Charlotte County and there is still debris in the streets, and the blue tarps. Homes and businesses have been destroyed. Public safety facilities have been damaged and need to be brought up to code," said Republican Rep. Mark Foley, whose district partially resides in the hard-hit county.
Wednesday's Senate hearing is expected to address why the residents of Miami-Dade County, which is located 100 miles south of where Hurricane Frances hit, received $31 million in individual assistance as well as allegations of fraud and abuse connected to the payments.
Several Florida lawmakers have been spurred by a string of news stories highlighting alleged problems with FEMA's assistance. A final audit by FEMA's inspector general is expected to be released for the hearing on Wednesday even though Florida newspapers have been reporting its findings for weeks.
The audit reportedly finds that individuals across the state received about $1.13 billion in payments so far. It concludes that in FEMA's rush to assist victims with quick monetary assistance, $8.2 million in rental assistance was paid to more than 4,000 applicants in Miami-Dade who did not ask for it, and more than $1 million was sent out in unnecessary compensation and over-valued personal property.
The audit also reportedly claims that FEMA paid $15,000 for funerals of three victims whose deaths could not be traced to the storms. The Orlando Sun-Sentinel's review of medical examiner records and FEMA's own records found that the agency spent $1.27 million on 315 hurricane-related burial claims, even though the official death toll across Florida was 123.
The newspaper claimed people who died from colon cancer, skin cancer, suicide and coronary artery disease, among others, had funerals paid for by FEMA.
The audit reportedly concludes that no evidence can be found of widespread fraud. It suggested better controls could be put into place to avoid problems in the future.
Craig cited plenty of cases of deaths that may have been caused indirectly because of the storm — for instance, from a lack of quick access to medical facilities — and he said he believes that all funerals paid for by FEMA were aboveboard.
"We get doctors' notes, the medical examiners' reports, and if someone applies (for funeral expenses), we have case workers who investigate," he said.
Craig also said that it is "disingenuous" for critics to suggest that Miami-Dade shouldn't have received aid, while other counties, even other states along the eastern seaboard, received FEMA aid for the secondary impact from the hurricanes.
He charged that newspaper reports have overstated the problems, particularly the errors in overpayments, and said that the error rate is less than 1 percent of the total state payout so far.
"We got the money out there to many people and an error rate of less than 1 percent, I think, is way better than any other industry standards," he said.
Meanwhile, 14 people have been federally charged in Miami-Dade with making fraudulent claims for assistance.
Residents have mixed feelings.
Mary Brown, 75, was told recently that she had to return $281.00 to FEMA because the agency had noted she had insurance and it shouldn't have paid for assistance in the first place.
Brown, a widow who lives in an Indiantown mobile home, used the money to fix her roof, which was damaged in the storm. She said she told inspectors she had insurance when they came out to the house initially, but they insisted she could get money for any out-of-pocket costs she incurred. Now, she said, she is being told they will garnish the money from her Social Security check.
"That really appalled me," she told FOXNews.com. "They gave all that money to Miami when they didn't even get hit and now they want to attach my check."
Brown is one of approximately 7,000 Florida residents who are being asked to return funds due to errors in overpayments, duplication with insurance and other errors.
Brown's story appeared in a local newspaper and her plight brought about numerous offers to pay her bill, which she gratefully accepted. As for FEMA, she said she does not have much regard for the agency and neither do many local residents.
"They are really upset about the money they sent down [to Miami-Dade] and they are upset that they are still trying to get the money they really need," she said. "It really leaves a pretty bad taste in your mouth about FEMA."
But Maryann King of Lake Wales, 78, said she and her neighbors in the Saddlebag Lake Resort, a retirement community of 800 families, feel very differently. She recently won the Points of Light Award for her volunteer efforts after the hurricanes.
"Without FEMA, a lot of homes would have been completely ruined," King said, noting that the houses nearest to her were destroyed. "They set up offices all over. When I asked for a cover for a roof they were there in four or five days. I have absolutely no complaints. I don't know anyone here that does."
No Break in the Clouds
Critics say the full brunt of the problems has yet to be addressed.
News reports have hammered the agency over findings that more than two dozen housing inspectors hired by FEMA through contractors in Virginia had criminal records, ranging from DUI to criminal sexual conduct. The Sun-Sentinel said it reviewed 133 names of the nearly 3,500 inspectors because FEMA invoked privacy protections for the remaining inspectors.
Again, Craig said the issue was overstated, noting that someone who has done their punishment for a crime such as DUI should not be overlooked for a job, and that of the 900,000 inspections done in the state, no complaints of foul play were made.
"They act as though FEMA was putting criminals into your homes," he said.
Meanwhile, several counties outside of Miami-Dade are complaining that they have not received the money promised to them, and are now paying interest on loans they took out to pay for the initial recovery.
Stockton Whitten, assistant county manager for Brevard County, which requested upwards of $32 million in reimbursements since the hurricanes, said the county received about $16 million of that, and had to take out a loan on its own insurance funds to help pay for some of it.
"It's been a slow process," he said.
But Whitten is not quick to criticize FEMA. "The rules were made for a storm event and not for three or four storms right behind each other," he said. "That's not something that could have been anticipated."
FEMA says it is working with counties to ensure they get the rest of what they are eligible for, and added that counties often apply for funds they don't qualify for.
"It's a bit disingenuous for entities out there to complain about the slowness of the payments," said Craig. "We got it out fairly quickly, and putting in requests that are ineligible is going to slow down the process."
Bills recently introduced by Republican Rep. Clay Shaw, Florida's delegation chairman, vice chairman Democrat Rep. Alcee Hastings, Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, Foley and Mack seek to make the outlay process easier by firming up criteria and timetables for payments and ensuring that only FEMA officials, not inspectors, sign off on claims.
Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler goes much further in his cleanup of the agency, calling for FEMA Director Michael Brown's (search) resignation.
Brown was scheduled to testify on Wednesday. Craig said he "is looking forward to telling FEMA's story."