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FEMA: Compassion without crookery

Agency changes emergency aid distribution to combat abuses

By Mike M. Ahlers
CNN

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FEMA announced that at least for the time being, debit cards will not be used to distribute assistance.

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Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Saying it wants to remain a "compassionate" agency but avoid the abuse and inefficiencies that marred its response to Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Monday announced major changes to the way it will distribute emergency aid.

Key among the changes:

  • FEMA will give displaced families $500 in emergency aid after major disasters, down from the $2,000 per household given to victims of Katrina and Hurricane Rita.
  • It will begin registering evacuees before storms make landfall, giving the agency a head start in distributing money and finding temporary residences for people if their homes are badly damaged. It won't move them from emergency shelters to apartments and other temporary homes until after verifying their identities.
  • It will speed up phone-in registrations by pressing into service 3,000 Internal Revenue Service call-takers. The agency also is testing five mobile registration intake centers and hand-held registration devices it can deploy into disaster zones.
  • The agency will ask state and local governments to sign contracts with local companies before storms for removal of any debris in the event of a disaster.
  • The changes come amid congressional demands that FEMA speed up services while simultaneously preventing abuses that were rampant after last year's storms. More than $1 billion distributed to hurricane victims was misspent, congressional auditors said, including $3,700 for jewelry, $2,000 for New Orleans Saints season tickets, $600 for strippers and $300 for "Girls Gone Wild" videos.

    The money represented 17 percent of the so-called "expedited assistance" aid that was distributed.

    'Protecting the tax dollar'

    R. David Paulison, the new head of FEMA, said the changes balance the need to aggressively distribute aid while safeguarding public money.

    "This is still going to be a compassionate organization," Paulison said. "We simply have to do a better job of protecting the tax dollar."

    FEMA decided to reduce expedited assistance aid from $2,000 to $500 at least partially because of the abuses, Paulison said, adding that the change should not seriously affect evacuees. The money is intended as a "stopgap" measure until evacuees can access bank accounts or other sources of money, he said.

    He acknowledged that large households will get the same amount as smaller households, but dismissed suggestions the program is inequitable.

    If the disaster is prolonged, he said, the amount of money could be increased.

    But Paulison ruled out the use of "debit cards" to distribute the money, at least for this year. FEMA tested the use of debit cards during Katrina, but the program was disastrous both because of problems with the cards and the perception that some evacuees were getting a benefit that others were not.

    Paulison also dismissed suggestions that FEMA restrict how emergency aid money is spent, saying he could not "baby-sit" the public.

    "I have a lot of faith in the American public," he said. "I think most people will spend the money appropriately."

    States to kick in

    The "Expedited Assistance" program also requires, for the first time, that states foot part of the bill. Affected states must contribute 25 percent of the money, FEMA said.

    "It's their citizens," Paulison said. "If they don't agree with it, we simply won't do it."

    FEMA officials say they have dramatically improved their ability to register evacuees, revamping the agency's Internet-based registration system, deploying mobile registration centers and hand-held devices, and enlisting the IRS call-takers.

    The new system will enable FEMA to register 180,000 to 200,000 people a day, up from a peak of just more than 100,000 a day last year. As few as 45,000 people a day could register the previous year, said David Garratt, deputy director of FEMA's recovery division.

    Regarding the request that state and local governments contract with debris removal companies before disasters, FEMA said it is setting up a Web-based database that will allow contractors to post information about their capabilities and availability.

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