Holding the Government Accountable

Frances, Fraud and FEMA

As the federal government gears up to pour billions of dollars (some estimate up to $200 billion) into New Orleans, Mississippi and other areas decimated by Hurricane Katrina, it would be an understatement to say that the potential for waste, fraud and abuse is great.

In the wake of last year's Hurricane Frances, which hit South Florida 100 miles north of Miami-Dade county, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was handing tens of millions of dollars to residents and businesses in Miami-Dade. The problem is that Miami-Dade county only felt the equivalent of "a bad thunderstorm." TVs, new cars and a funeral (although no deaths were caused by Frances) are examples of items purchased with FEMA funds.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee confirmed that FEMA had "serious shortcomings" this July. Among these deficiences, many FEMA inspectors were found to have only cursory training.

Meanwhile, counties that were much closer to the eye of Frances--such as Indian River, St. Lucie and Broward counties--and were harder hit, but, relative to Miami-Dade and the damage caused, received much less assistance. Clearly, as the Sun-Sentinel notes, "Miami-Dade has received a disproportionate share of the aid for Hurricane Frances relief."

Disproportionate allocation of disaster relief may be in the works now, thanks to the political power of Mississippi's Congressional delegation, according to this AP article (hat tip: GovExec's Earlybird.).

POGO will explore more post-Katrina reconstruction concerns tomorrow. Until then, we'd like to point out the open government angle to the Hurricane Frances FEMA stories pursued by the Sun-Sentinel. Mark Tapscott of the Heritage Foundation makes a strong argument that the Freedom of Information Act was crucial in that newspaper's success in fulfilling its watchdog function in combating the waste of taxpayer dollars. Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin riffed on this angle in January, urging media outlets, in the case of Hurricane Frances, to keep "the heat on FEMA--and on Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush...Somebody needs to track where all the money is going."

The media needs to keep watching how the government responds as the initial shock and devastation of Katrina fade into the hope and reality of reconstruction. Some waste is understandable when lives are at stake and speed essential. But waste, fraud and abuse that do nothing to increase the effectiveness and speed of response should be minimized since waste, fraud and abuse can hamstring the response itself. Although we may not be able to hold hurricanes accountable, our government is quite another story.

UPDATE: The Justice Department and other agencies have established the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force.