FEMA Director Defends Agency; Critics Claim Payments Slow, Exaggerated Death Benefits

April 29, 2005

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is being criticized in Florida for being too slow to pay counties for hurricane claims and too aggressive in paying benefits for people who died during last year’s hurricanes; and Mel Brown, FEMA director has acknowledged the criticism and defended the agency on all counts.

While the agency received high praise during and immediately after the four hurricanes that struck Florida, it now faces questions from Congress on several issues and complaints from counties still waiting for FEMA checks.

According to Associated Press reports, U.S. Senator Mel Martinez and Representative Mark Foley filed bills to force FEMA to speed up its response process. Under their plan, FEMA would have to pay at least half of all legitimate public claims within 60 days after an application is submitted.

FEMA would also have to reimburse counties for removing debris from private property, which isn’t covered under the current FEMA rules.
“I recognize that members of the Hill have to do what they have to do,” Brown said in an interview with the Associated Press, while noting that FEMA already has a policy of sending half of anticipated county claims to the state up front. At that point counties can ask the state for the money while claims are being reviewed.

The Florida Association of Counties said many of the areas hit by hurricanes last year have complained about FEMA’s response claims process.

Medical examiners in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., are trying to determine why they only counted 123 hurricane-related deaths in Florida, while FEMA counted and paid benefits to more than 300 victims.

Dr. Steven J. Nelson, chairman of the commission, told the Miami Herald FEMA paid $1.3 million as the result of deaths suffered in Florida’s four hurricanes last August and September. FEMA said it is limited by privacy restrictions and did not share any names, dates or locations for the 314 people it counted as victims.

“We’re working very closely with the Florida medical examiners to provide Dr. Nelson with whatever we can help him with,” Nicole Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman told the Herald. She said the FEMA guidelines for determining whether deaths are hurricane-related are “fairly flexible.”

“We have ways of trying to minimize that frustration because I recognize that the counties are put in very difficult financial straits,” Brown said.

But the rest of the payments will be much slower in coming.

“When you’re starting to pay for things like reimbursing counties for debris removal, reimbursing counties for the destruction of highways, or schools or other public facilities, those involve billions of dollars and we will be much more cautious about making certain that all the requirements are met, that you’re doing it properly,” Brown said.
He also said too much has been made out of fraud allegations.

“We ought to put fraud in perspective,” Brown said. “In every disaster in this country, there is someone who tries to cheat the federal government, cheat the taxpayers. We have found on average that our fraud rate is anywhere from 2 to 3 percent for the overall disaster. Right now in Florida we are way below that.”

He also defended the agency against reports in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that people with criminal records were hired by FEMA contractors to conduct home inspections.

“We received no complaints from anyone in Florida that Joe Blow came to my house and tried to steal something from me or tried to do any sort of criminal activity,” Brown said.

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