FEMA’s disaster response, spending scrutinized
CHICAGO – As hurricane relief efforts continue along the Gulf Coast, government investigators and auditors are intensifying their examination of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the office in charge of responding to natural disasters.
Separate congressional and White House investigations have been launched into FEMA’s roundly criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, and government auditors are questioning several multimillion-dollar Katrina contracts, including one to a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., the multinational company formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.
This week, a federal judge in Florida will hear arguments in a lawsuit aimed at forcing FEMA to release details of $1 billion in disaster relief payments in the wake of Hurricane Frances, which struck Florida in 2004. Published reports have revealed examples of millions of dollars going to areas that suffered little if any damage.
While a federal audit criticized FEMA for not adequately documenting the need for assistance – including paying for the funerals of people who may not have died as a result of Frances – FEMA attorneys argue that privacy interests outweigh the public’s need to know how that money was distributed.
The multiple investigations of FEMA come as the agency, which has had a checkered performance history since its creation in 1979, struggles to respond to disasters in often rapid succession, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Although the congressional and White House probes have been condemned by Democrats as a partisan whitewash operation, the proliferation of questions about FEMA promote the perception of an agency that is being battered by a disaster of its own making.
Trina Sheets, executive director of the National Emergency Management Association, a nonprofit agency that represents state emergency management officials, said FEMA is effectively under siege “at a time when they are still in response mode.”
Politics figures into the effort to examine FEMA, even as it is responding to hurricanes. Politics also may be a contributing factor to FEMA’s seeming inability to respond promptly to Katrina. Before FEMA Director Michael Brown resigned under pressure Sept. 12, the agency was led by Republican political operatives. The agency’s top three leaders, including Brown, came either from the 2000 election campaign of President Bush or from the White House advance team.
Past performances by FEMA also have fueled doubts about the agency’s competence. Recent stories by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that FEMA awarded at least $330 million in disaster relief to areas that suffered little or no damage during natural disasters from 1999 through 2004.
An audit by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General examined the agency’s approval of $1.1 billion in disaster funding stemming from Hurricane Frances and found that, in one instance, $720,000 in payments were awarded to 228 people based solely on “verbal representations” that they had suffered losses. The audit also criticized FEMA for paying for the funerals of people who may not have died as a result of Frances.
How FEMA distributed financial assistance in Florida is at the heart of two lawsuits filed by four Florida newspapers, which sought under the Freedom of Information Act details of how FEMA awarded payments after four hurricanes struck the state. The suits are based, in part, on reports that $30 million went to Miami-Dade County, an area that suffered little if any damage.
In one filing last week in U.S. District Court in Ft. Myers, FEMA attorneys argued that the right to privacy of aid recipients outweighs the public’s right to know how and where the agency distributed payments. FEMA said the release of that information would violate privacy by revealing personal and financial data.
In Washington, senators from both parties have co-sponsored a bill authorizing the special inspector general in charge of the Iraq reconstruction effort to oversee and audit federal Katrina-related expenditures, including more than $60 billion in relief approved by Congress earlier this month.
James Mitchell, spokesman for the inspector general for Iraq, said one of the lessons they learned in Iraq is that when there is a lot of money and chaos, auditors need to get there quickly to curb problems before they start.
Questions already have been raised about Katrina contracts to repair levees and provide emergency housing. The Government Accountability Office and the Homeland Security Department – the Cabinet-level umbrella department that oversees FEMA – said last week they will inspect more than $2.5 billion in contracts that were awarded with little or no competition. Those contracts include one awarded to Kellogg, Brown & Root Services Inc., a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., which Cheney served as chief executive from 1995 to 2000.