2007-01-04 / View From the Middle

View From The Middle

Katrina Fraud: There's A FEMA Born Every Minute
By Charles Rogers

An Associated Press report a few weeks ago indicated how much fraud was forced on the American taxpayer for the cleanup of New Orleans and the surrounding areas after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It was estimated more than $2 billion in wasted monies was handed out to just about anyone who said he or she would be a responsible human being and handle it appropriately. Sounds like it was open season for scammers, con men (and women), out-and-out thieves and advantage-takers of every kind.

The devastation heaped upon those poor people on the final days of August, 2005, was a result of the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the Gulf Coast, including southern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It struck with enough force to breach the New Orleans levees and flood thousands of homes. After months of searching and counting, the death toll wound up at 1,300 - that's approximate, since all the bodies still have not been found.

A U.S. Senate panel is currently - holiday season notwithstanding - looking into the abuse of not millions of dollars, but billions. That's with a b. Prosecutors in the three states hardest hit by the storm are beginning to pick up handfuls of bad guys who allegedly fraudulently took money the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), in its zeal to help the needy, handed out immediately after the disaster. And it looks like they are just barely skimming the surface of the fraud at this time.

Picture it. There were people wandering wearily, wading through muddy, fetid water after their home was blown away by the record-breaking, Level 5 hurricane or washed away by the rain and the flooding. They'd lost everything and were trying to seek a dry place in the huge New Orleans Superdome while they hunted for friends and family. Someone from FEMA offered them a subsistence check and, of course, they took it.

Meanwhile, there was someone next to them who did not lose his home. He was still fairly devastated, but not in as bad condition as the first family. But he saw checks being handed out and, solely on his word that he was in the same dire circumstances, was also handed a check, which he cashed as soon as he could and then went to another line and took yet another FEMA check and did it again. Reports, including a recent analysis by USA Today, say some of the fraud was blatant, citing instances where disaster aid claims for ersatz home owners exceeded the number of homes in existence before the hurricane hit.

The greed encountered during and after the disaster doesn't end with individual cases of avarice. What about the hundreds (maybe more!) of contracts handed out in haste because it was a disaster of such proportions? Hell, there are still scores of trailers sitting empty in lots in and around New Orleans because contracts were awarded without bidding . It sure is nice to know people in high places!

It was heartening, though, to find that, even at the very beginning, there were those with good intentions who, as soon as the wind and rain subsided, took off from other points, like New York and California and Boston and Iowa and Detroit to see if they could help. It was indeed refreshing to see these people - just plain people with no selfish notions - pitch in if for no other reason than to help their fellow man. They weren't evangelists, nor were they profiteers, nor did they do it for any other reason than altruism.

What a contrast! To see those uplifting, ingenuous, sincere individuals breaking their backs - and their wallets - to help in any way they could, standing next to those who found, if not a gold mine, then an easy way to grab the gold ring before it passed them by.

Those cons who bargained with the government must have known that the people with whom they were dealing were, well, SUCKERS (How can we term it any other way?). And they just out-and-out took advantage of the situation. There are stories of people traveling from Louisiana to Mississippi and then over to Texas just so they could climb onto that bandwagon of sleaze.

With the new Congress coming in this week, it is hoped that some of this will be ferreted out and some will be called to task for spending taxpayers' money foolishly, even though the cause was a just and serious one. There's probably very little that can be done about those who took checks for $2,000 or $3,000 and ran. They've cashed them, spent them and are probably still running and looking for more. But, with all the congressional committees we'll see in the near future trying to lay the blame, maybe a couple of the evil (yeah, that's the word!) bigwig contractors will be taken down a peg or two.

Oh, and one other thing...There's also nothing we can do about the incompetence found on every corner of the Katrina Hurricane Disaster rescue. No doubt, those committees and subcommittees will focus on that topic, too. And while they're at it, I'm sure they'll give a few medals and pats on the back to FEMA, et al. For instance: "Yer did a heckuva job, Brownie!"

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