- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 27, 2012

From floods in Florida to mudslides in California, Ronald Houston inspected thousands of battered homes during his career in the disaster business, becoming one of the top earners for a local joint venture that gets paid lots of money in the wake of powerful storms such as Sandy.

But as a Federal Emergency Management Agency inspector, Mr. Houston didn’t actually work for FEMA. In fact, the Virginia-based contractor that oversaw his housing inspections has insisted that neither he nor thousands like him are really even employees, records show.

Instead, in a long-held industry tradition, the people most responsible for gathering the information needed to make important decisions about who gets federal disaster aid and who doesn’t are more like temporary hired guns.

These on-call independent contractors, some with decades of experience and others with little or none at all, are sent out after a few days of coursework and some online testing to inspect damaged homes just as soon as the president declares a federal disaster.

Based in an office building in Fairfax, the Partnership for Response and Recovery LLP, which manages the many federal disaster inspections, won a nearly five-year, $750 million contract in 2007 from FEMA. The partnership, in turn, hires inspectors and pays them a fixed fee for each house they inspect. Thousands have been deployed in recent weeks to parts of New Jersey, New York and other states slammed by Superstorm Sandy last month.

Inspectors have an incentive to work fast: They get paid $57.50 per inspection in most cases. The inspections usually last about a half-hour to 45 minutes.

Anyone with experience in housing construction trades, real estate, appraisal or other areas can apply to be an inspector, but there is no telling whether the one who shows up at a storm survivor’s door has decades of experience or whether it’s his or her first time in the field.

“By the way, don’t feel compelled to tell the applicant it’s your first inspection — let’s keep that between us!” an “online preview” section of the partnership advises would-be inspectors.

Asked why the company tells inspectors not to tell applicants that they are new to the job, Molly Wagner, a spokeswoman, said the preview is meant to attract people into training classes.

“The intention is also to put new inspectors at ease and help them feel confident in their abilities so that if they become an inspector, they would also help the applicant feel comfortable,” she said.

Lawsuit settlement

More than 400,000 people from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island have applied for disaster aid from FEMA, which has approved $782 million in payments, according to an agency statement earlier this month.

Inspectors enter information into hand-held computers. FEMA uses the data to decide how much, if any, disaster money applicants should receive.

Many inspectors find the business isn’t for them and quit, but others make it a living and follow disasters across the country. Mr. Houston, for instance, made nearly $120,000 in 2005, according to records in a class-action lawsuit he and other inspectors filed against the partnership and other entities concerning overtime pay. Mr. Houston could not be reached for comment.

The case was settled for what Mr. Houston’s attorney told The Washington Times on Tuesday was a “modest amount,” but not before hundreds of pages of legal motions and depositions were filed in the case.

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