Sunday, September 18, 2005

FEMA: A Legacy of Waste

From the Sun-Sentinel:

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 that were spared the devastating effects of fires, hurricanes, floods and tornadoes.

In the country’s poorest, inner 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:

$5.2 million to Los Angeles area residents for the 2003 wildfires that burned more than 25 miles away.

$168.5 million to Detroit residents for a 2000 rainstorm that the then-mayor doesn’t even remember.

$21.6 million in clothing losses alone to Cleveland-area residents for a 2003 storm that brought less than an inch and a half of rain.

The Sun-Sentinel first exposed fraud and waste in federal disaster aid in Florida last year, when FEMA distributed $31 million in Hurricane Frances relief to Miami-Dade County residents who experienced no hurricane conditions. U.S. senators and federal auditors, reacting to those reports, feared similar problems had occurred in disasters throughout the country.

The newspaper 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 Sun-Sentinel found.

“It’s so disturbing because we have urgent needs to help individuals who truly are the victims of disasters,” said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-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.

Read the rest of the series here.

The biggest complaint about dealing with government agencies is the endless red tape and accounting procedures that prevent them from doing their jobs quickly and efficiently. This story demonstrates why we have red tape; if you make it too easy and unaccountable, everyone becomes Gordon Gekko:

The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

On the other hand, Gordon Gekko ended up getting what he deserved.