FL emphasizes long-term need

Florida disaster responders are concerned that media reports of the misuse of funds and political blame will distract donors from serious hurricane-related needs.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | October 27, 2004

"I think I saw a lot of misuse of funds."

—Connie Thrasher

Florida disaster responders are concerned that media reports of the misuse of funds and political blame will distract donors from serious hurricane-related needs.

And, more than ever, Florida recovery is simply about meeting dire human needs, said Connie Thrasher, spokesperson for the Charlotte County Homeless Coalition.

In some ways, the hurricane was "the great equalizer," she explained - whether that's taken as a positive or negative. "We had 1,000 people in Charlotte County homeless before the hurricane. Afterward we had 10,000 people homeless in the county."

When you're assisting thousands of people, there's bound to be some disaster survivors that try to take advantage of the help, Thrasher said. When relief groups in her county looked closely at lists of people who were supposed to visit a relief station one time, there were "quite a few people that came more than once," she said.

But it's a tiny percentage of people, it happens after every disaster, and it shouldn't take the focus away from where it belongs, added Thrasher, who was living in Homestead when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992.

Then, Thrasher said she observed some people misusing government aid, or falsely applying for it. "I think I saw a lot of misuse of funds. People will get as much as they can," she said.

Residents across Florida have been reading - and talking about - newspaper reports that focus on people reportedly making false damage claims, particularly in south Miami-Dade County.

Some 21,097 people had registered for FEMA aid in Miami-Dade County as of Oct. 23. Only six counties out of 45 counties declared in the wake of Hurricane Frances have higher numbers of registrations: Palm Beach (79,531), Brevard (50,977), St. Lucie (42,966), Volusia (35,917), Orange (21,930) and Indian River (21,635).

Frances made landfall in Martin County - more than 140 miles north of south Miami-Dade County - then tracked in a northwesterly direction through the state.

Whether there's misuse of funds or not, the donating public needs to know that thousands of Floridians badly need their help, reiterated Thrasher and others. "There are still not enough places to live. There was always a lack of affordable housing but now there's less than ever."

Mold is becoming a serious concern, she added. "Many elderly people don't want to leave their homes" despite a grave health risk from mold.

Thrasher worried that, while stories about misuse of funds were on the media's mind, long-term needs "were off the media radar screen. This recovery is going to take three years or more. The best we can do is stick together and get it done."

Even if the numbers in Miami-Dade County appear high, the long-term recovery resolve hasn't changed, agreed Jody Hill, head of Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster.

"Clearly the registrations in Miami-Dade appear out of proportion to the visible damage," she said.

But Hill and others quickly said their message, as faith-based responders, would not change.

"We are encouraging individuals, businesses and churches to register with FEMA," said the Rev. Jim Kirk of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

That doesn't mean faith-based groups don't care about fraud at all, he added. "Fraud is always a concern and, yes, the pot of money is only so big."

FEMA defines fraud as any attempt to file for disaster aid under false pretenses. "FEMA is obligated to make sure taxpayer dollars go only to those people who sustained legitimate losses," the agency stated. "This may include prosecuting anyone who makes a fraudulent claim."

Any reports of fraud or a fraud investigation should not discourage those with legitimate damage from applying for aid from either FEMA or the Small Business Administration (SBA), urged Hill.

"The need for those affected to register and - as important - to return their SBA application is still very much an issue," she said.

The deadline in Florida for applying for federal aid for both Hurricane Frances and Hurricane Charley damages has been extended to Dec. 11. There is not yet a designated deadline for applying for Jeanne-related or Ivan-related damages in Florida, according to FEMA spokesperson Lisa Pierce in Florida.

More than 1 million people have registered for federal aid in Florida for hurricane-related damages.

Hill and others said they hoped any news about fraud would not deter a donating public from making charitable contributions in Florida. "We must help America understand - there are thousands of disaster survivors living in tents or in their cars - more having to vacate their homes daily due to growth of mold and mildew. Many of these folks are elderly.

"We will need a whole lot more generosity to resolve the needs."

Fraud is, in some ways, simply a fact of life after a disaster. "While we know that fraud exists, it does not deter or hamper our endeavors," said Jerry Collins, director of disaster response for Catholic Charities USA.

Ann Burkholder, director of connectional ministries for the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, agreed. "My own experience is that in disaster there will always be those who attempt to take advantage of the circumstances, whether it is price gouging, looting, defrauding FEMA, or something else.

"Our responsibility is simply to insure that the people who have inadequate means of recovering from the hurricanes on their own, know what they need to know in order to get the help they need."

According to FEMA, potential cases of fraud or misuse are referred to the U.S. Department of Justice for prosecution. Penalties for fraud may include fines of up to $250,000 and prison sentences.

FEMA also reported that most cases were possible fraud is detected are not, in fact, deliberate attempts to defraud the federal government.

FEMA's Office of Inspector General routinely audits those who receive FEMA disaster recovery funds to determine whether funds were spent according to federal regulations. Assistance recipients should keep receipts for three years to show how the money was spent, FEMA recommends.

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