Miami-Dade FEMA claims high in poor areas
By Megan O'Matz, Sally Kestin and Luis F. Perez
Posted October 17 2004
"They see a chance to get free money... They damage [their possessions] themselves and say it was damage from the storm. ... Free money.''
HOMESTEAD -- The manager of a check-cashing store in this southern Miami-Dade city says he has cashed as many as 30 disaster relief checks a day for residents since Hurricane Frances hit Florida on Labor Day weekend.
The storm made landfall more than 140 miles north, in Martin County.
Handling check after check from the Federal Emergency Management Agency has made Robert Trimino of the R&T Check Cashing Store wonder: What kind of damage did the storm do here to warrant government aid to so many people? Trimino lives near the West Mowry Drive store and had no damage at his home but said he can't blame others for collecting assistance.
"If FEMA is going to give me a $10,000 check or only a $1,000 check, hey, I'm not going to say no," he said.
Throughout Miami-Dade County, in some of the area's most disadvantaged communities, people are applying for, and in many cases, receiving FEMA aid for Hurricane Frances, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has found through a county canvassing.
FEMA, citing privacy laws, has refused to identify the 10,568 Miami-Dade aid recipients who had received a total of $23.6 million as of Thursday.
The newspaper found recipients living in bleak apartment complexes where they said leaky windows and weak roofs allowed damage to their furniture, left their clothes and mattresses wet and rank, broke air conditioners and ruined their rugs. But in several of the complexes, managers said they knew of no damage, inside or out, from Frances, which meteorologists likened to a bad thunderstorm in Miami-Dade.
Some residents told the newspaper they saw neighbors throwing water on their walls and belongings, hurling rocks into cars, and bending window screens before FEMA inspectors arrived.
"They see a chance to get free money," Gladys Davis, 52, of Liberty City, said of some of her neighbors. "They damage [their possessions] themselves and say it was damage from the storm. ... Free money.''
Word of the hurricane aid spread fast, from the initial days after Frances when FEMA's phone number appeared on every local newscast, to the first successes residents had in getting money. While watching their children playing outside or just hanging out, residents' talk quickly turned to FEMA.
When tenants of one subsidized housing project in Opa-locka started getting storm aid, neighbors traded tips on how to file a successful claim. Down the street, a crowd gathered waiting for the mail the day FEMA checks were supposed to arrive.
In Homestead, many of the checks Trimino cashed came from the Coral Gardens Apartments on Redland Road, where manager Felix Mercedes said he knew of no damage to any apartment. But residents of the 92-unit complex spoke of neighbors who collected FEMA checks and spent the money on cars, jewelry, even a wedding.
Some elected officials are calling for investigations into why so much money is pouring into pockets in Miami-Dade, while residents of hard-hit Indian River County had received only $13.7 million, and Martin County $10.1 million, so far.
Even local officials were surprised at how much money has come to Miami-Dade, saying they knew only of minimal damage, mostly from fallen trees. Private insurance claims, another measure of damage from a hurricane, are estimated at $22 million in the county, about 10 times less than some Treasure Coast counties.
Yet, from Homestead to Opa-locka, the Sun-Sentinel found scores of people who applied for money.
"Everybody here called FEMA," said Latoya Gibson, 26, who moved only days ago into the Knight Center Apartments, just north of Little Haiti, on N.E. 68th Street.
Apartment owner Tom Paterno said the 112-unit, low-income and subsidized housing complex had no damage from the storm. "Absolutely zero," he said, adding that he was "astounded" to hear tenants talk of receiving FEMA money.
The Miami-Dade Housing Agency, which owns more than 10,000 units of public housing in the county, also had no reports of damage to any of its 40 properties, said agency spokeswoman Sherra McLeod.
FEMA has quality control measures to prevent fraud, but acknowledges it occurs in every disaster. "Somebody always tries to cheat the system," said FEMA director Michael D. Brown on Thursday. The agency is now taking a close look at Miami-Dade after the Sun-Sentinel reported last week about the county claims.
Brown wouldn't say specifically what his agency is doing to look into the legitimacy of the claims. "I'm not going to tell you that," he said. "We're out trying to find now whether there's any fraudulent activity. If I tell you we're sending 15 agents into the field to go knock on doors and stuff, then people are going to clam up and I'm not going to be able to find anything."
To receive FEMA money, people must call the agency's disaster relief hotline and apply. An inspector is then dispatched to the home to see the damage, interview the applicant and file an electronic report to FEMA.
The agency pays only for losses not covered by insurance. It will provide as much as $25,600 in tax-free grants for home repairs, medical, dental and funeral expenses, ruined clothing, furniture, and appliances, and temporary housing for people whose homes are uninhabitable.
Recipients must keep receipts and are subject to audits showing that they used the money only for allowable expenses.
"We don't give anybody a dime without inspecting to see whether or not they have incurred damage," Brown insisted. He later acknowledged that people can receive temporary housing checks prior to an inspection.
In Opa-locka, at the three-story, 72-unit Wildrose Apartments next to a junkyard, three women told the newspaper they received a total of $3,300 from FEMA.
"I only got $600. I wasn't that happy about the money," said Angela Johnatty, 43, who lives on the second floor with her two children. She said water came into a bedroom from the ceiling, damaging a mattress.
A circular brown stain was visible in the corner of the bedroom ceiling. The apartment had no other obvious damage.
"Two TVs were blown," she said, adding that water "blew in under the door" of her living room, ruining a rug.
Nicole Daniela, 21, said she received $400. A neighbor, Chekevia Harris, 19, an 11th-grade student who lives with her two children, her mother and two siblings on the first floor, said FEMA gave her $2,300 for water that leaked in through the ceiling.
"It was coming from the light bulb and the corner of the roof," Harris said. "My closet was a little wet. I lost my radio, TV, clothes and they gave me moving money."
Harris pointed out water stains around an air conditioning unit and barely visible streaks on her bedroom wall. Since the walls dried, other signs of damage had faded, she said.
Harris did not move out after the storm, but plans to do so soon. She said she needed $1,100 for a deposit. "That's the FEMA money," she said.
Wildrose tenants began applying to FEMA after hearing of successful applicants at a nearby complex, Harris said. She applied Sept. 7 and a FEMA inspector arrived the following day. The money came the next week.
"Is it easy? I can't say because I had a good inspector," Harris said. "Everybody that had that inspector got FEMA money."
Also in Opa-locka, at the Gardens Apartments, Kim Harris, 37, no relation to Chekevia Harris, said she received $1,500 for mildewed clothing and water damage from a leaky bedroom wall. It was her third time receiving FEMA funds. Previously, she received at least $3,000, she said. "I think it was Irene." She could not remember the name of the other storm that brought her "maybe $3,400."
She used her latest allotment to buy new clothes and wash damaged outfits. "I got another TV, a microwave, a blender," she added.
In Liberty City, at an apartment building in the 1200 block of N.W. 61st Street, Jimmy Thomas, 43, said he received $2,000 from FEMA for water damage from a broken living room window and a crack under a bedroom wall-unit air conditioner.
Thomas said he used the money to clean a couch and buy new clothes, a mattress and a $118 rug. Injured in a shooting, Thomas said he survives on about $10,000 a year in disability payments.
"The money helped me a lot," he said of the FEMA payment. "I needed it, too. I had just bought this furniture from Rooms-to-Go."
Asked how FEMA can be sure that the damage inspectors are seeing in run-down apartments or homes was caused by Frances, Brown said inspectors are trained to check for mold and dampness and ruined items but, in the end: "We rely upon [what] the victims tell us."
Staff Writer Greg Lewis and Sun-Sentinel Broadcast Reporter Raelin Storey contributed to this report.
Megan O'Matz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (954) 356-4518. Sally Kestin can be reached at email@example.com or (954) 356-4510.
Too bad it won't even buy Bush any votes.
NOT "Free" Money.
Supposed to be paid back.
Yeah, I'll believe it when I see it too.
Not necessarily. There were/are many grants being given after Ivan. FEMA has a low interest loan program and those must be repaid.
It was amazing how after the storm there was only one group of people literally rioting over relief items (ice,water, MRE's, etc) while in other neighborhoods people waited peacefully to receive relief items. The peaceful people got theirs much quicker because the cops were able to assist in passing out the stuff instead of having to fight Laqueesha.
I remember when Andrew hit, those things were happening all around the state.
My house was totaled. Yet, my next door nieghbor had appox. $16,000 damage. The insurance company GAVE him everything!
He got over $170,000 ... no explainations! He did the repairs himself and paid off his house. And had $60,000 left over taboot!
Needless to say, he didn't complain.
I had the very same adjuster, same insurance company, exact same policy, and had to pull tooth and nail to receive what my policy had stated. And my house just had four walls left. The insurance company never questioned my neighbor, just dished out checks.
I was happy for my nieghbor at first ... until he told me how nicely the insurance company rewarded him.
He could still live in his house ... FP&L never shut off his electricity. I had my wife and 8 month old daughter, with few places to rest.
Greed is all so prevelent.
However, we thanked God for everything and moved on.