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Published: Thursday, 1/27/2005

FEMA's Miami vice

FROM the "tax dollars at work" file: The Federal Emergency Management Agency shelled out $30 million in disaster aid to 12,500 residents of Miami-Dade County in Florida last year after Hurricane Frances. The money was used to pay for cars, clothing, furniture, televisions, and even $4,500 for a funeral.

Only problem was, the hurricane's edge barely stirred the palm trees in Miami, causing little damage and no deaths. The eye of the storm came ashore 100 miles up Florida's east coast, near Sewall's Point.

Nonetheless, as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported, applying for FEMA aid became something of a cottage industry, particularly in the poorer areas of Miami-Dade. It was, residents exulted, "free money," too good to pass up.

FEMA officials now admit that at least some of the money it lavished on Miami-Dade residents was misspent, including some duplicate payments and at least six claims listed in agency records as being due to "ice/snow." FEMA says those were due to data entry errors, but it's impossible to believe that the entire $30 million fiasco could have been simply a mistake.

What is more likely is that the top brass at FEMA, headed by Michael D. Brown, President Bush's appointee as undersecretary of Homeland Security for Emergency Preparedness and Response, saw a chance to gain political good will by dropping a treasure chest full of federal dollars into South Florida. Did we mention that the checks came out just before the presidential election?

Indeed, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush applied to his brother in the White House for a presidential disaster declaration for 17 counties on Sept. 2. On Sept. 5, the day before the Category 2 storm made landfall, President Bush complied for five counties from Palm Beach north to Brevard. Miami-Dade, further south, was added to the list the next day, even though county officials had neither asked for the declaration or done a damage survey as required.

FEMA officials, including Mr. Brown, at first denied any political motivation and defended the Miami aid, even though residents there were getting more help than those in Florida counties where hurricane damage was serious. Now the U.S. Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is investigating what it calls "allegations of fraud and abuse" by the agency.

And FEMA, which has launched into a public relations tap dance to defend itself, admits that questionable hurricane aid also was sent to residents of other states, including Alabama and North Carolina.

Regardless of the outcome of any inquiry, it is quite obvious that the Bush Administration has managed to politicize the activities of yet another government agency. That is troubling, especially since FEMA had developed a reputation for quick and nonpolitical response to disasters during the Clinton Administration.

As we have pointed out before, these sorts of shenanigans are a legacy of one-party rule that shackles the nation's capital and many of the states. Unfortunately, it's going to be with us for at least the next four years.

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