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"Glitch' led FEMA to overpay

Published Aug. 24, 2005

Federal officials said Monday they paid $12-million too much to about 3,500 people in Florida who applied for assistance because of hurricane damage.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency blamed the problem on a computer glitch and said officials were working to recoup the money.

Dan Craig, director of FEMA's recovery division, said the problem occurred throughout the state but he downplayed the error, saying the agency processed 1.2-million applications statewide.

Craig also defended FEMA against allegations that the agency paid millions in fraudulent disaster aid claims in Miami-Dade County, which missed a direct hit by a hurricane by 100 miles. FEMA paid about $30-million to more than 12,500 residents.

"Any home anywhere can be damaged by a hurricane," Craig said. He pointed out the widespread reach of the season's four hurricanes.

Craig said Miami-Dade County received 4 to 10 inches of rain during the week of Hurricane Frances and saw winds between 55 and 80 mph.

However, the National Weather Service reports that the wind speed in the county peaked at 36 mph on Sept. 4, when Frances hit, while the National Hurricane Center reported the maximum sustained wind at Miami International Airport was about 43 mph during Frances. The hurricane center reported no official gauges in Miami-Dade recording 4 inches of rain or more during the hurricane.

FEMA officials did not provide documentation to support their claims about the weather.

Lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., asked for an investigation into how FEMA distributed relief funds after the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that thousands of Miami-Dade County residents had collected hurricane aid.

In addition, the newspaper found that FEMA gave more than $70-million to residents of parts of Alabama, North Carolina and other areas barely touched by disaster. Members of Congress in those states also called for a probe.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, announced last week it would investigate FEMA payments.

Craig said FEMA inspectors inspect every claim for damage and other entities had found evidence of damage in Miami-Dade. Private insurers paid $35-million for claims and the Small Business Administration has loaned more than $1.5-million in the county, he said.