Sunday, November 20, 2005

storm scamming and covering it up

This story in the New York Times is appalling. Tens of thousands of people in Jackson, Missippi have received over $60 million in assistance from FEMA and the Red Cross despite the fact that they are over 160 miles from the hard-hit coast, that only 50 houses in three counties around Jackson were rendered uninhabitable (4000 had light damage), and that for most people receiving cash the ONLY damage they suffered was spoiled food in their refrigerators after power went out. Similar reports from elsewhere in Mississippi and in western Louisiana, little touched by Katrina. This is an ongoing problem -- FEMA and the Red Cross gave $31 million to victims in the Miami region last year after Hurricane Frances barely grazed the region. I'm sure that then the fact that Florida was a swing state in the upcoming election was not a factor...

Somehow, the Federal government saw fit to extend the disaster area in Mississippi (Governor Haley Barbour, Republican) some 200 miles farther north than in Louisiana (Governer Kathleen Blanco, Democrat). Mississippi emergency officials encourage all residents to apply for aid, even if it was just to cover the cost of a chainsaw or generator.

Giving away the cash was bad enough. FEMA then followed up by asking local emergency officials why they had reported so few homes as destroyed. When FEMA learned the reality, they then tried to get the Hinds County, Mississippi officials to INCREASE the numbers. In other words, FEMA asked local governments to join then in defrauding American taxpayers by lying about the situation to cover up for FEMA's largesse in areas relatively undamaged by Katrina.

Pretty bad. I know it is tough to get proof of damages and understand the impulse to disburse help quickly. But really, a quick check with meteorologists and local emergency officials might have given some clue that Jackson -- which sustained 47 mph winds with gusts to 74 mph -- was HARDLY in the same boat as New Orleans or Gulfport or Biloxi or dozens of other towns closer to the coast and to Katrina's category-4 strength. And $60 million-plus in money that could have been used in the REAL disaster zone instead was used for shopping sprees in Jackson.

This sort of issue is why FEMA needs to be professionally managed and not be buried deep in the bureaucracy at the Department of Homeland Security.