Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Wrong Lesson

NYT Editorial

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which failed to employ the kinds of controls necessary to prevent an estimated $1 billion in fraud and abuse following Hurricane Katrina, has compiled a list of remedial steps it plans to take. That’s good. But tucked into the list is a peculiar decision to cut back immediate emergency aid for families to $500, instead of the $2,000 given after Katrina.

Certainly, it was bad news that prison inmates received money intended for the displaced and that cash cards were used to buy pornography and football tickets. But many of the failures identified by the Government Accountability Office could easily have been prevented.

The office estimates that the agency made “about $5.3 million in payments to registrants who provided a post office box as their damaged residence.” That straddles the line between laughable and depressing. Nor does the agency have any excuse for allowing double dipping of rental assistance by evacuees staying in free hotel rooms.

But the agency’s incompetence has no bearing on the needs of people who have lost everything and require immediate help. Cutting back emergency aid is the wrong response by an agency in crisis, one that smacks of victim-blaming and overreaction.

It is important to have strong upfront controls to ensure that money doesn’t end up in the wrong hands, and we are glad to see the agency taking steps in that direction. Taxpayers lose faith in programs when they find out they are being defrauded. But the agency also should not set unrealistic hurdles for people who have fled disaster areas and may not have every piece of identification or documentation that one might bring along in an organized departure. The agency’s first goal in a crisis is to succor the afflicted, not suspect them of fraud.

The devastation of the Gulf Coast was unprecedented in scope. Although fraud was widespread it accounted for only 16 percent of payments, too high but hardly outrageous in a time of great confusion and tumult. What happened in New Orleans in particular was exceptional because normal checks were difficult to perform, thanks to the flooding caused by breached levees. The agency has borne the brunt of the blame. Much of it was deserved, but overreacting — to the detriment of the next group of terrified solace seekers — is not the answer.

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