‘Sun-Sentinel’: Katrina Only Latest of FEMA Foul-Ups

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

A two-day investigative series that the South Florida Sun-Sentinel will publish starting this Sunday says that the wretched performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during Hurricane Katrina is the rule rather than the exception for the agency.

The series comes down hard on FEMA from the first graf: “The federal government’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina is just the latest in a series of missteps by a national disaster response system that for years has been fraught with waste and
fraud.”

FEMA’s bungling during Katrina came as no surprise to the Sun-Sentinel, says Editor and Sr. Vice President Earl Mauker.

“We actually called for [Michael Brown’s] resignation a year ago,” he said, referring to the FEMA head who resigned earlier this week.

The Tribune Co.-owned Fort Lauderdale paper has been on FEMA’s case since last year when its computer-assisted investigation turned up massive fraud and waste in the wake of Hurricane Frances. FEMA, the paper found, had paid millions of dollars in claims in Miami-Dade County — even though the hurricane made landfall 100 miles away.

“It was absolutely incredible. In Miami, the hurricane never hit, it never came on shore, and we found FEMA paid out $31 million for a storm that never came ashore,” Mauker said.

The Sun-Sentinel followed up that revelation with continuing reporting of FEMA waste. The paper says the agency paid for funerals for people whose deaths had nothing to do with the hurricane. It reports that FEMA inspectors receive little training — and that a shocking number of them have criminal records.

With this coming investigative series — titled, “FEMA: A Legacy Of Waste — the newspaper expands its examination far beyond Florida.

“We found the same waste in Detroit, Baton Rouge, Cleveland, Los Angeles,” Mauker said. One example: After a season of wild fires and mudslides in Los Angeles, FEMA paid $5.2 million in disaster relief to families in Watts, far from the affected areas.

“There is a huge pattern of low-income urban neighborhoods, when they find out there is a FEMA-declared emergency, they file,” sometimes faking damage to collect, Mauker said.

The series estimates that between 1999 and 2004, FEMA squandered $400 million in money spent “for storms that never occurred or for issues that were miles away from” a disaster site, Mauker said.

Sun-Sentinel investigative journalists actually started out looking to track how homeland security funds were being spent for ports and other sensitive areas. “We started looking on the computer, and saw all this federal money going to all these places, and wanted to know why,” Mauker said.

“Michael Brown was nothing but defensive” as the newspaper was doing its reporting, Mauker said. “We had to file all kinds of lawsuits.”

Reporters overlaid maps of the various storms and disasters with maps of where FEMA money was spent. The newspaper tracked some one million claims, Mauker said.

The series will be available online atwww.sun-sentinel.com beginning Sunday, Sept. 18.

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