- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

Federal taxpayer money wasted by hurricane victims last year on adult entertainment, gambling and jewelry is prompting officials to order limited background checks for recipients and to slash funding.

The new rules already in effect allow victims of natural disasters to receive $500 in emergency aid, $1,500 less than victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were awarded.

“When they have a lot of money, the temptation out there is to spend it,” said David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“We can’t sit there and baby-sit them … if they chose to spend the money on something else,” Mr. Paulison said. “When they receive a small amount at first, they will spend it on what they really need.”

Officials say last year’s storms required more urgency in distribution and larger amounts of funding, as hurricane evacuees were displaced for longer. The funding cut restores emergency aid to its 2004 levels.

Victims will still be required to register for aid at shelters, by phone or computer after a disaster has struck, and a private company has been hired to verify the victim’s identity and address.

“Registration will stop a lot of the abuses,” Mr. Paulison said.

“I have a lot of faith people will spend it well, but there is always going to be someone who does not — look at the food stamps program and the fraud in that,” he said. “We have to put safeguards in place.”

Officials are still tallying the billions wasted overall in aid and housing by those fraudulently claiming to be hurricane victims.

“FEMA did not have a system in place to verify that people are from that area or are who they say they are; that practice is now in place,” Mr. Paulison said. “We need to make sure we are spending taxpayer dollars better.”

Cities in Texas bore the cost of hotels for evacuees and are just now getting reimbursed $14 million by FEMA.

“Instead, we will take the process on ourself and send vouchers directly to the property owners,” Mr. Paulison said.

The $500 in emergency funds will not include the cost of shelter, but is to be used for emergency needs such as food, clothing and fuel, said David Garrett, director of recovery.

“Very few people need $2,000 to take care of those expenses for a week,” Mr. Garrett said. “It is designed to give an initial blast of funding to take care of those needs. If we subsequently determine we need to issue [another $500], we have the authority to do that.”

Government investigators found that names, addresses and Social Security numbers were not verified and thousands of $2,000 checks or debit cards were wrongly issued.

No debit cards will be issued this year, instead payments will be made by check, direct deposit, or in cash.

“People on rooftops didn’t have wallets or credit cards; giving cash is the right thing to do,” Mr. Paulison said.

Those who qualify for housing will be given a code to check into hotels for up to 30 days, longer if the disaster warrants.

The new rules also make local governments responsible for debris removal and suggest that contracts be signed before disaster strikes. If assistance is required, the Army Corps of Engineers will step in, as it did after Katrina and Rita.

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