Senators warn FEMA to avoid waste and fraud in hurricane response

The top members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Monday to curb waste and abuse in responding to Hurricane Dennis.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said an investigation into FEMA's disaster relief program for last year's hurricane season found "serious shortcomings," such as inappropriate or inconsistent damage designations and reimbursements. The senators offered 19 recommendations to help curb the identified problems.

"While we recognize the importance of getting aid quickly to victims of natural disasters, we do not believe that there is any conflict between achieving that vital goal and implementing safeguards against waste, fraud and abuse," the senators wrote. "On the contrary, implementing prudent changes … will benefit both the real victims of disasters and the taxpayers who fund disaster-relief efforts."

Hurricane Dennis battered the Florida Panhandle Sunday with winds up to 120 mph, causing floods, power outages and property damage. No deaths were reported in in the storm's wake. Alabama, Florida and Mississippi were declared federal disaster areas on Monday, meaning residents and counties in those states are eligible for federal assistance.

FEMA has deployed response and damage assessments teams to the region. "FEMA's immediate mission over the next 24 hours is lifesaving and ensuring that pre-staged disaster supplies and resources get into the states' hands as quickly as needed," the agency said Monday.

The Senate committee began an investigation in January into allegations of fraud and waste in the distribution of FEMA aid to Florida and other states hit by hurricanes in 2004. The committee has jurisdiction over FEMA, which is part of the Homeland Security Department.

"The committee's investigation found serious shortcomings at key stages of FEMA's program -- the points where FEMA initially designated areas as eligible for disaster relief and later added-on areas as eligible for relief, and the point where FEMA contractors inspected individual claimants' damages and FEMA made awards. These serious shortcomings allowed taxpayer dollars to be wasted," Collins and Lieberman said. "FEMA's administration of the Individual and Households Program needs improvement, and FEMA needs to put controls in place to ensure that assistance is provided to only eligible disaster-related needs."

The senators asked FEMA Director Michael Brown to respond to the recommendations within 30 days. FEMA did not return telephone calls for comment Monday.

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