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Saturday, September 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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FEMA said to be lax in funeral payouts

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Three of every four funeral claims paid by the federal government after last year's hurricanes in Florida covered deaths unrelated to any of the storms, a state review has concluded.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave families up to $7,500 each to bury or cremate loved ones whose deaths were supposed to be a direct result of one of the four hurricanes that struck the state last August and September.

But Florida's medical examiners reviewed 306 deaths approved by FEMA statewide and found that only 74 could be blamed on the storms. In the other 232 cases, the cause of death was suicide, unrelated accidents or natural ailments such as cancer, heart attacks or emphysema.

"It fits the pattern of sloppiness," said Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla.

FEMA's disaster-aid program has been under criticism since the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported last fall on $31 million going to residents of Miami-Dade County, one of the few areas of the state not hit by last year's hurricanes.

In an investigative series published this week, the newspaper found similar patterns of waste and fraud in disaster assistance across the country. FEMA gave at least $330 million in five years to applicants in areas with little or no reported damage from fires, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, the investigation found.

It's unclear exactly how much FEMA overspent on funerals in Florida. The agency has refused to provide details, citing privacy laws. Based on the average payment of $4,130, nearly $1 million in hurricane funeral assistance went for deaths that medical examiners say were not caused by the storms.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., blames politics.

"I think it's no coincidence that they made these payments in an election year," Wasserman Schultz said. "It backs up many people's concerns that FEMA has transformed into an agency of political patronage."

In approving the claims, FEMA accepted news accounts of deaths and letters from doctors. Several families said FEMA gave them money after doctors wrote that stress from the hurricanes might have contributed to deaths that medical examiners ruled were a result of heart disease or other natural causes.

"My big question is why in the world are they paying on a death when there's no death certificate?" Shaw said. "Why wouldn't they require a death certificate before they would even consider a claim?"

FEMA has changed its funeral-assistance policy, spokeswoman Frances Marine said in an e-mail to the Sun-Sentinel.

"We have strengthened our guidance for this year — requiring caseworkers to obtain certification from a licensed medical professional ... of disaster relatedness — and added oversight from top ranking FEMA and state officials," she wrote.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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