FEMA’s Way of Doing Things

Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency shelled out $6,500 for a beat-up 1987 Ford Mercury with a blue-book value of $1,300. It also handed out $726 checks to cover rent for more than 4,000 residents whose south Florida apartments were later found to be largely undamaged by hurricanes or privately insured.

On the surface, these may seem to be clear examples of gross inefficiency or fraud. But FEMA _ for now, the most ridiculed and reviled spot in the federal bureaucracy _ has defensible reasons for that relief spending, according to agency responses to critical audits of its operations.

In May, FEMA was flayed by the Department of Homeland Security’s in-house auditor for its profligacy in administering its $31 million relief-and-recovery program in the Miami-Dade County area after last year’s Hurricane Frances.

Homeland Security’s inspector general concluded that FEMA wrongly ruled that individuals in the area, far south of the brunt of the storm and thus spared substantial damage, were eligible for aid without making onsite damage assessments.

Among other things, the audit also found that FEMA doled out money for repairs to homes and cars without seeing any documentation of their value, and distributed rental assistance to people who did not immediately demonstrate they qualified. The agency left itself open to fraud, as attested to by the filing of 14 criminal cases against individuals and contractors.

“When scarce resources are wasted, fraudulent claims are paid and safeguards ignored, there are new victims: the taxpayers,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said at a June hearing of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee dedicated to examining FEMA’s performance.

But in its response to the Homeland Security audit, FEMA explained the rationale behind its decisions and actions. In many cases, the agency described itself as stuck in a “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” situation. For instance:

_ FEMA said it was justified in adding the Dade County area as a disaster zone because thousands of residents there in fact suffered storm damage. The inclusion of the area without onsite inspections was made to speed relief to the victims, the agency argued. If it had delayed, FEMA would no doubt have been criticized for having too little regard for the victims and too much for red tape, the response said.

_The agency was stretched as never before, with its personnel working around the clock to help the victims of four nearly back-to-back hurricanes in Florida. For several weeks, more than 65,000 people registered for aid per day, with a total of 1.2 million seeking immediate help. It was simply impossible to both respond quickly to their needs and also carefully document whether they were eligible, FEMA said in an April 29 response to the preliminary audit.

“While FEMA acknowledges a dual responsibility to both disaster victims and taxpayers, our first and overriding priority in any disaster response is _ and must always be _ to save and sustain lives and property,” wrote Michael Brown, who resigned this week as FEMA’s head.

_ The degree of fraud detected paled in comparison to the number of people helped. The 14 indictments in Dade County represented just .006 percent of the 227,000 who applied.

_ While Dade County suffered only tropical-storm-force winds during Hurricane Frances, a disproportionate amount of damage occurred in low-income areas where homes were built before stringent building codes took effect. Given their economic status, victims there also were far more in need of immediate aid, which would have lagged by many days if FEMA had to inspect and assess each home’s condition before $726 housing assistance checks could be handed out.

_ The same rationale underpinned FEMA’s decision to issue $6,500 for each automobile deemed destroyed in the storm. That is slightly above the $6,100 amount that all 50 states adopted as an “average vehicle replacement” standard this year, which was established to reconcile vastly different state-to-state methods of calculating such reimbursements.

While giving the owner of an old heap such a big check might seem wasteful, FEMA argues that the purpose of the aid is to help people get back to work and normal lives.

“Vehicles are often the only means of transportation available for victims to get to and from their jobs,” the response said. “The purpose of providing this type of assistance is not to reimburse an applicant for the blue-book value of their vehicle, but to provide them with the means to obtain necessary replacement transportation, and then only if insurance does not cover the loss.”

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)