Washington, DC – Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) today held a hearing in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to examine the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) response to the series of hurricanes that struck Florida last year. The Committee documented fraudulent claims, wasteful spending, and ineffective government management in FEMA’s response to Hurricane Frances in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Senator Collins is the Chairman and Senator Lieberman is the Ranking Member of the Committee, which has jurisdiction over FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“Although our focus is on specific events in Florida, this issue has ramifications that are relevant to future disaster-relief efforts in all regions of our country,” said the Senators in a joint statement. “Federal disaster relief is very important to help families and communities rebuild from a disaster; however, it must be limited to those who have truly suffered losses. The critical nature of this assistance makes reports of waste, mismanagement and outright fraud particularly disturbing. We cannot sweep such allegations under the rug; we must face them head-on to preserve public confidence in this critical program.”
The Committee’s investigation has revealed that $31.2 million of disaster aid was distributed in Miami-Dade County after Hurricane Frances, even though the county’s Emergency Operations Center reported that damage and debris from Frances was “minimal.” Quality control inspections conducted by FEMA inspectors after disaster aid was distributed found that, out of a random sampling of completed inspections, 37% showed errors on personal property awards, 18.5% showed errors made on determining if the home was unsafe, and 11.5% showed errors on aid that was granted for rental assistance and relocation.
“These numbers are higher than any acceptable rate of error. It appears that FEMA lacks the controls to prevent significant amounts of waste and fraud. There is no reason that the federal government cannot deliver swift and compassionate disaster assistance and still ensure the proper checks and balances are in place so that the people who truly need help are getting it,” said the Senators. “Clearly, FEMA needs to make changes in its processes and regulations. FEMA failed to properly perform required damage assessments and properly oversee its inspection process. The public needs to know that fraud will be prosecuted and that we will not tolerate waste or abuse.”
The DHS Inspector General’s Office (IG) released a report during the investigative hearing today that found that: 1) FEMA designated Miami-Dade County eligible for Individual Assistance programs without a proper preliminary damage assessment; 2) some disaster aid provided for repairs and replacement of household items were not based on actual disaster-related damage or loss; 3) the verification of some personal property damages were based on undocumented verbal representations; 4) guidance and criteria for replacing or repairing automobiles and the reimbursement of expenses for funerals and other items were generally lacking; 5) some Expedited Rental Assistance applicants received assistance without a need for it, and 6) rental assistance awards were made to some applicants without reasonable assurance of eligibility. The report also found that FEMA’s oversight of inspections needs improvements.
The DHS IG report concluded that, “The policies, procedures, and guidelines used in Miami-Dade County for the Individuals and Households Program (IHP) were also used throughout the State of Florida, casting doubt about the appropriateness of IHP awards made to individuals and households in other counties of the state as a result of the four hurricanes (of 2004), particularly those counties that had only marginal damage. Further, according to FEMA officials, most of the procedures were used for disasters in other states making the conditions and recommendations broadly applicable to FEMA’s implementation of the IHP nationwide.”
The witnesses who testified at today’s hearing were: DHS Acting IG Richard Skinner, FEMA Director Michael Brown, and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL).