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2005-09-08

Politicizing Disaster Relief: How FEMA Overcompensated Florida Citizens in the Run-Up to the Presidential Election

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We look at FEMA’s disaster response in Florida in the fall of 2004, and how the presidential election played a role in the distribution of hurricane aid there. [includes rush transcript]

As FEMA comes under increasing scrutiny for its role in handling the New Orleans disaster, its response has not always been so sluggish.

In the fall of 2004, with the presidential election on the horizon, the key battleground state of Florida was facing its second hurricane in less than a month.

In response, FEMA awarded millions of dollars in disaster funds to residents of Miami-Dade County, even though the area did not experience hurricane conditions.

FEMA officials, the governor and the White House steadfastly denied suggestions that politics played a role in the distribution of hurricane aid in Florida.

But records contained in hundreds of pages of e-mails of Governor Jeb Bush suggest otherwise. According to the documents, a federal consultant to FEMA predicted that a disaster could reflect poorly on President Bush and suggested that his re-election staff be brought in to minimize any political liability.

  • Megan O’Matz, a reporter with the South Florida Sun- Sentinel which first obtained the records and broke the story.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to speak to Megan O’Matz, She is a reporter with the South Florida Sun Sentinel which first obtained the records and broke the story. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MEGAN O’MATZ: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Talk about your understanding, how your paper, the Sun Sentinel, got the documents and how disaster relief funds were distributed right before the 2004 Presidential election.

MEGAN O’MATZ: Well, we obtained this memo from a consultant to FEMA through the Florida public records law. It was contained in emails to the governor. This consultant had directed it to some FEMA officials who then forwarded it to the Governor’s chief of staff, and in it again he did suggest that FEMA pay careful attention to how it’s portrayed, if in case hurricane Frances was so significant that it created a huge mess for the President. This consultant was concerned that not all of the blame for anything that went wrong be put fully on FEMA or the Department of Homeland Security, but that they at least come up with a strategy to convince the public or show the public that other agencies such as the Red Cross and State and local officials also have a responsibility to respond in these cases. But clearly, they were very aware, I think that, they needed to respond and respond well to the hurricane. A lot of people were hurting, as you said. Florida was a very important state. I think they delivered billions of dollars here, certainly, and my paper paid close attention to the money that went to Miami-Dade, which was incredibly excessive.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a quote in your piece, consultant predicted a huge mess of the FEMA director, Michael Brown, who says the men and women at FEMA don’t give a "patooey" about who the President is or who the Governor is. He said whenever people say stuff like that, we’re just offended by that, because that’s just not how we operate. He said that to your newspaper’s editorial board?

MEGAN O’MATZ: Yes. That’s correct. They denied even really following up on any recommendation from this consultant, the governor’s staff said that the governor never saw the memo. The re-election campaign said that they never received it. So basically, the official line was that this was one man’s personal thoughts and it never went very far within FEMA regarding any of the considerations that he brought up.

AMY GOODMAN: You write about the time, and this is just when the Republican National Convention was winding down, hurricane hits, President Bush has only a slight lead in the polls against John Kerry. Of course, winning Florida was key to the President’s re-election. FEMA should pay careful attention to how it’s portrayed in the public, as a consultant, and you say in a September 13th memo to Governor Bush and other top state officials, Orlando Cabrera, executive director of the Florida housing Finance Corporation and a member of the Governor’s Hurricane Housing Working Group wrote after a meeting with FEMA that the agency was allocating short term rental assistance to, "everyone who needs it without asking for much information of any kind."

MEGAN O’MATZ: Yes. We have done extensive reporting on the money that went to individuals after the hurricanes here, and a good chunk of that money is called Rental Assistance. It’s supposed to go to people who can no longer live in their homes while they’re being repaired, and basically, the agency was giving this money certainly in Miami-Dade County to people who never had to move out of their homes at all, because they didn’t sustain serious damage. There have been 16 indictments in Miami-Dade County for fraud, for cheating FEMA. We have had a US Senate investigation on this exact topic. And again, we just saw FEMA being very generous, again, especially in Miami-Dade giving people money for broken — supposedly broken television, washers, driers, whole new wardrobes and rooms full of clothing, and so on. Rooms full of furniture and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s a pretty remarkable piece that you write, Megan O’Matz, reporter with the Sun Sentinel in South Florida. What about how the aid is being given out or how Florida is being — is dealing with the hurricane now. We often hear about Katrina, of course, devastating Louisiana, New Orleans, in particular, Mississippi, Alabama. What about how it’s being dealt with in Florida and where did it hit? How bad is it?

MEGAN O’MATZ: Well, people probably don’t recall this given the magnitude of what has happened in the Gulf Coast states, but Katrina did first make landfall here in Florida, sort of on the border between Broward County and Miami-Dade County. It brought a lot of rain. Certainly, it was not the magnitude of a storm it was once it reached the Gulf of Mexico, but it did cause some property damage here. I think local officials estimate that 350 homes were damaged or destroyed in Broward and Miami-Dade County and that there were thousands of others that might have had some property damage, whether that’s trees down or other minor problems in the homes. Now, interestingly, when — if you compare hurricane Frances, the government last year declared Miami-Dade a disaster area when there wasn’t much of a problem. This year, they denied that similar aid to residents of Miami-Dade for Katrina, and that’s caused a lot of concern by our local members of Congress who believe this time the aid is deserved, and yet FEMA won’t provide the money. Our governor has said he has thought maybe FEMA’s gun-shy about providing the money now because whenever they offer this assistance, even though maybe 200, 300 people may need it, as soon as you turn on — this application hotline for FEMA, thousands of people apply, and it seems like more money is given out than maybe should reasonable be expected.

AMY GOODMAN: Megan O’Matz is a reporter with the South Florida Sun Sentinel. We are also joined by Judd Legum of the Center for American Progress and Farhad Manjoo of Salon.com. We are talking a lot about FEMA, which is subsumed under the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA was a cabinet-level position under Clinton but lost that cabinet position under Bush. But should we just be focusing on FEMA? It is part of the Department of Homeland Security. I wanted to go to a clip Judd, of Michael Chertoff, head of the Department of Homeland Security, this weekend. This is after the disaster is been going on for some five, six days, and Michael Chertoff held a news conference just before he went down to Baton Rouge and to New Orleans, and he responded to a reporter who asked about the delay in response.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: You know, these are citizen soldier, we have to get them mobilized and deployed. When we send the National Guard overseas, we don’t tell them to pack up and leave in 24 hours unless it’s some huge emergencies.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, again what he said, we have to get them mobilized, talking about the National Guard when we send the National Guard overseas, we don’t tell them to pack up and leave in 24 hours unless it’s some huge emergency.

JUDD LEGUM: Well, I think that gets right to the heart of the issue, and if you look not just at Chertoff, but how President Bush and his schedule and Donald Rumsfeld and how he was behaving, there was — there were several days that passed, really critical days, where the Federal government did not consider this — obviously, they knew it was a major hurricane, and something that happened, but they did not consider this a huge catastrophe or as Chertoff would later call it, an "ultracatastrophe." And it was that lag time, those periods of time, that really caused a lot of the damage to people’s lives. That’s why people didn’t get the aid they needed right away. That’s why, you know, even by midweek, people like Chertoff himself, and also Brown, weren’t even aware yet of people in the convention center, people elsewhere in the area, who didn’t have any food and any water and were living in very dangerous conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: Farhad Manjoo, we also just got the report that on Tuesday, a group of people evacuated from New Orleans, who were thought they were headed to Charleston, South Carolina, instead were flown in to Charleston, West Virginia, in South Carolina, the airport ambulance waited, medical teams were waiting, but FEMA flew them into West Virginia. Do you know anything more about this?

FARHAD MANJOO: I don’t know anything more about that specific incident, although I did hear about it, and saw it as kind of another example of FEMA’s incredible incompetence over this. I mean, one of the things that I read about in one of the articles I wrote about FEMA is, you know, how many groups wanted to offer to help in the — in the days after and before the hurricane hit, and they offered, you know, very specific kinds of resources to FEMA, and FEMA sort of never once tapped any of those groups, and in some specific cases, they barred people from — who were intending to help from coming in to the region for — and without citing many reasons. There are dozens these stories of people and organizations wanting to help and trying to donate various kinds of resources who were turned away by FEMA and other Federal authorities.

AMY GOODMAN: In our next segment, we’re going to be talking about the offers of foreign countries to help out the United States in this time of need, like Cuba, very experienced in hurricane damage management, offering to send up some 1,000 doctors who had these hurricane packs immediately since it is so close. They were rejected. But I wanted to read the National Weather Service message from 10:11 in the morning on Sunday, this is before the hurricane hit. 10:11 Central Time- Devastating damage expected. Hurricane Katrina. A most powerful hurricane with unprecedented strength rivaling the intensity of hurricane Camille of 1969. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer. At least one-half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure. All gabled roofs will fall, leaving those homes severely damaged or destroyed. The majority of industrial buildings will become non-functional, partial to complete wall and roof failures expected, all wood-frame low-rising apartment buildings will be destroyed, concrete block low-rise apartments will sustain major damage including some wall and roof failure. High-rise office and apartment buildings will sway dangerously, a few to the point of total collapse. All windows will blow out. Now, this is Sunday. Katrina hit Monday. This is the National Weather Service. The government’s weather warning. Judd Legum of Center for American Progress, your response.

JUDD LEGUM: Actually, President Bush himself was personally briefed by that group and told of the damage himself. So he was well aware of it, and you would think that at that point, or even before, that’s when resources should have been mobilized, but the reality was for just — to provide an example, a medical ship, a hospital ship, didn’t leave the port of Baltimore on the way to New Orleans until the following Friday. So, almost five days later, it didn’t even set sail on its way down. So, really what you had is a — that again is a huge delay between when we knew that this was going to be extraordinarily severe hurricane and when help started to arrive. It was that interim period where really, so much of the devastation occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Judd Legum, Center for American Progress, Farhad Manjoo, writer with Salon.com and Megan O’Matz, reporter with the South Florida Sun Sentinal, for joining us. Just to read, CNN did announce this, a geography to the growing list of FEMA fumbles. A South Carolina Health official said his colleagues scrambled Tuesday, when FEMA gave a half-hour notice to prepare for the arrival of a plane carrying as many as 180 evacuees to Charleston, but the plane instead landed in Charleston, West Virginia, 400 miles away. It was not known whether arrangements have been made to care for the evacuees or transport them to the correct destination. A call seeking comment from FEMA was not immediately returned.

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