Localizing relief would provide better disaster aid

Editorial

I t’s a good thing that, in defiance of most of the predictions and of all the alarmists who tried to link nasty hurricanes to global warming, we had a relatively mild hurricane season this year.

If the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been called upon to deal with a disaster this year, it might have gotten in the way of being taken to the woodshed for dealing so abysmally with 2005’s hurricanes.
But now we have another audit, another slap on the hand for FEMA. It’s getting to be a way of life.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, continues to examine how FEMA handled Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. In the previous episode of this dismal saga, the GAO estimated that almost $1 billion of the aid FEMA handed out to victims was wasteful or sent to ineligible people who used fraudulent means to get their hands on “free money” from the taxpayers.

Now GAO’s Gregory Kutz has told a Senate hearing that the earlier estimate was “likely understated,” which is a nicely understated way of putting it. At least tens of thousands of people perpetrated fraud on FEMA and the taxpayers.

In its latest report, the GAO found that people who had been given FEMA trailers for free were also given rental assistance. The typical mistaken payment was around $5,000, and the total bill for this product of poor communication within the agency was about $17 million.
FEMA also paid twice for people who had applied for assistance for the same property for two different hurricanes, Katrina and Rita. Total tab: $20 million.

FEMA paid millions of dollars to people not qualified for FEMA aid under the law, including $3 million to more than 500 foreign students attending universities in Louisiana and Texas. It provided free apartments to 10 people in Plano, Texas, while sending them $46,000 for housing expenses.

The agency also managed to lose 85 laptop computers, printers, GPS devices and two flat-bottom boats.

The serious question raised by all this is whether disaster assistance should be the responsibility of a permanent federal agency. Disaster assistance would almost certainly be less expensive, more efficient, and more likely to go to people who really need help if it were seen as a private-sector and state and local responsibility. There might be occasions when extra federal help would be useful, but it shouldn’t be seen as the first-reach approach.