By JEREMY COX
Scripps Howard News Service
November 10, 2005
Of those applications, 230 streamed out of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties on the state's east coast within two weeks of Wilma's passing. At last report, though, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had attributed 20 fatalities to the storm in those three counties.
The chasm between the reported death toll and the soaring number of FEMA claims has raised fraud fears and reignited questions about the agency's payment policies.
"I think people know they can game the system if there are a lot of applications flooding in," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. "Simply dying during the time of a storm doesn't entitle someone to a claim."
The ongoing deluge of funeral claims after Wilma "sounds similar" to the apparent abuse that afflicted FEMA last year after four hurricanes roared across Florida, Foley said. At least 203 of the 319 claims paid by the agency were unrelated to the storms, a Florida Medical Examiners Commission review later found.
Immediately after Wilma, the most striking contrast in aid requests emerged in neighboring Collier and Miami-Dade counties. The Category 3 storm slammed into the counties on Oct. 24, leading to 11 fatalities so far for each.
But as of Monday, Miami-Dade residents had asked FEMA to pay for 85 funerals while those in Collier had asked to be reimbursed for just six, according to FEMA records.
"I'm not the judge of what somebody else does. I just think some people are out for what they can get," said Carol Smith of Naples, whose husband, George, died of a heart attack after the storm passed.
George Smith, 67, was surveying damage to the couple's home Oct. 24 when he clutched his chest and collapsed, so his fatality was added to Collier's running count. On Wednesday, Carol began reviewing the FEMA application that had just arrived in the mail to retrieve expenses from his funeral.
FEMA officials are still checking the authenticity of the 263 funeral claims and have yet to approve compensation for any of them, said Jim Homstad, a FEMA spokesman in Orlando.
"When you consider statewide we have close to 427,000 applications (for individual assistance for Wilma relief) filed, that number doesn't seem so out of line," Homstad said, referring to the 263 death claims.
"Those are applications. They're not approved applications," Homstad went on. "There are a number of things people submit for that they might not be eligible for once the proper approval process runs its course."
Applicants can receive up to $7,500 for each funeral.
FEMA has refused to release the identities of those seeking funeral aid, citing federal privacy laws. The agency's resistance to release such information has sparked several lawsuits from several media companies and outrage among public officials who demand more transparency for FEMA's actions.
Making the identities of aid recipients public would reduce instances of fraud, Foley said. The media could dig into claims and neighbors could check up on their neighbors to see if they were telling the truth.
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