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Easy money?

"Easy money?" Continued...

Issue: "Unto the breach," July 22, 2006

Lawmakers are exasperated with the debacle, if a little embarrassed by this federal relief "cash cow," as Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) called it. Congress has addressed the question of how to reform in a number of hearings and bills-including a Senate recommendation that FEMA be dismantled and moved out of the Department of Homeland Security. (With 190,000 employees, FEMA's personnel bloat can only encourage improper oversight and sweetheart deals, they argue.)

Three different government reports highlight FEMA's biggest blunders, often faulting the organization for failures of common sense, such as not establishing a workable system to verify that aid applicants are who they say they are, and having laxer standards for telephone applicants than for online applicants.

In another much criticized error, the organization issued more than 5,000 duplicate relief payments worth $2,000 each. As a result, $10 million went to individuals who had already received a check. Probably to save face, FEMA claimed that management "was keenly aware" of the duplicates-even issued them purposefully, since it believed many applicants would qualify for aid beyond the initial $2,000 anyway.

Yet according to government reports, FEMA's data disprove that officials knowingly made those payments; one report quotes the official responsible for managing FEMA's national disaster assistance as calling duplicate payments a "glitch" that was "not . . . a result of a deliberate action on the part of FEMA management." The GAO further estimates that 900,000, or 36 percent, of the 2.5 million total registrations following Katrina could have been duplicates.

Another oversight problem: The organization didn't instruct debit card recipients that the cards should be used only for disaster-related expenses, even though this is FEMA's policy. The result? Debit cards, the GAO says, "were used for adult entertainment, to purchase weapons, and for purchases at a massage parlor that had been previously raided by local police for prostitution." Later media reports added to this list five New Orleans Saints season tickets, bottles of Don Perignon champagne, and a sex change operation.

Yet this doesn't hold a candle to $450 million of manufactured homes, purchased by FEMA, that now sit on an airfield in Hope, Ark., where reportedly they are rotting and need jacks underneath. FEMA moved more than 10,000 homes to the airfield after officials realized the homes violated agency regulations in various ways-but not before they had ripped appliances and TV sets out of some to ensure that none had better amenities than others. (FEMA also rented the Arkansas airfield space at more than five times the market value.)

FEMA, though, may have increased the number of national chuckles through extravaganzas like "the great ice-capade": FEMA ordered 182 million pounds of ice for Katrina victims but used less than half once evacuees left Louisiana for shelters. The result? According to a Senate report, "ice went to ... distant locations around the country because FEMA decided it made more sense to move [it] to cold-storage facilities for use in new disasters than to let it melt."

One truckload the report singles out "ended up at the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Ariz., to be enjoyed by the polar bears and other animals. The truck driver who donated the ice to the zoo did so after traveling through 22 states without delivering a single bag of ice to hurricane victims."

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