FEMA outsources identity verification for disaster assistance

The Federal Emergency Management Agency decided to outsource the process of verifying disaster assistance applicants' identities, after last year's debit card handout in the wake of Hurricane Katrina allowed fraudulent and wasteful purchases, officials said Monday.

In connection with a Monday announcement that the agency will reduce each household's maximum share of government emergency funds from $2,000 to $500, FEMA Director R. David Paulison, said the agency has opted to contract out identity verification. He acknowledged that the agency was not prepared to defend its fund against fraud last year.

"FEMA did not have a system in place" to verify people's identities, Paulison said.

FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker said the verification work has been awarded to ChoicePoint, a company that has multiple credentialing and identification contracts with the federal government. DHS' procurement office arranged the contract, Walker said.

The agreement runs through the end of January 2007, Walker said, at a cost of $1.6 million. Because ChoicePoint had an existing deal with the Library of Congress, FEMA's part of the agreement was attached as a "bridge contract," he said.

Thousands of workers will be sent to areas predicted to be hit by a hurricane before the storm makes landfall, to prepare recovery efforts, officials said at a Monday morning briefing for reporters on changes to disaster relief programs.

The agency already has 2,000 workers to deliver assistance, but these will be supplemented by thousands more reserve cadre part-time employees, many of whom gained disaster experience following Hurricane Katrina last year. Some of FEMA's workers will help displaced individuals and families sign up for emergency fund identity verification at five mobile units that will be equipped with phones and Internet access.

David Garratt, deputy director of FEMA's recovery division, said hurricane relief registration continues to improve. The agency was only capable of handling about 100,000 evacuee claims after Hurricane Katrina, but it may be able to process twice that number this year, he said.

FEMA also is doing away with the debit cards it distributed last year, which received a great deal of publicity after the funds were used for nonessential items -- including tabs at gentlemen's clubs, breast implants and pornography.

Now, checks will be issued, Paulison said. Alternatively, some relief recipients might get funds directly deposited to their bank accounts.

Garratt said the funds distributed following Hurricane Katrina were an aberration from FEMA's typical relief efforts, and that usually between $300 and $500 is allocated for each head of household seeking assistance.

Paulison added that, despite the reduction in maximum funds that each household could receive, some might get supplemental funding later.

FEMA also announced the creation of a debris removal registry to help communities clean up following disasters. In a letter to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff last week encouraged cooperation with other state agencies to put the pilot program to the best use.

Paulison said the agency will continue to rely on the Army Corps of Engineers for debris removal, at least for the first month or two following a hurricane's landfall. He added that the Corps may continue to do such work even longer, if state and local entities are struggling. FEMA has worked with local businesses in assembling a debris removal contractors' master list for some state and local officials.

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