Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — Florida officially recorded 123 fatalities from last year's hurricanes, but the federal government has paid funeral expenses for at least 315 deaths, including those of a man who shot himself and a stroke victim hospitalized more than a week before the last storm hit.
"If you were to call around to all the medical examiner offices, people would say, 'No way did we have as many deaths as FEMA is saying,"' said Dr. Stephen Nelson, head of Florida's Medical Examiners Commission. "It's just an incredible number -- a difference of 192. This is the Free Funeral Payment Act."
The discrepancy is even greater because the families of some victims counted as storm casualties by the medical examiner said they received no help from FEMA, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found in its continuing investigation of hurricane aid.
FEMA officials declined requests for an interview, instead releasing a statement: "FEMA is in Florida to help the victims of the worst series of hurricane disasters in over 100 years, including helping those families who have suffered the loss of loved ones to this disaster."
The newspaper's analysis of FEMA claims in Florida shows the government paid $1.27 million for storm-related funerals as of March 10. The agency refuses to identify recipients of disaster aid, including those with funeral-related expenses, citing privacy laws. The Sun-Sentinel has filed a federal lawsuit to force release of the names.
Funeral eligibility is "not based exclusively on medical or coroner reports," FEMA's statement said. "FEMA may contact organizations like the Red Cross, hospitals, coroners' offices, police and fire departments, and/or ambulance companies for additional details."
The state's medical examiners said their records constituted the official death toll from the storms. "We're the keepers of the count," Nelson said.
'Get more money'
In Palm Beach County, where FEMA paid 39 funeral claims from hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, the medical examiner recorded a total of eight storm-related deaths, the biggest gap in the state.
"I don't know where (FEMA) came up with those numbers," said Dr. Michael Bell, the county's medical examiner. Applicants are "probably inflating it so they get more money."
In Miami-Dade County, where FEMA's payment for a funeral last fall fueled suspicions of fraud, the agency has since approved four more funerals from Frances. The Labor Day weekend storm made landfall 100 miles to the north, and the county medical examiner recorded no Frances-related deaths.
After learning from the newspaper of the number of funeral payments statewide, Nelson said he would urge the Medical Examiners Commission at its April 27 meeting to press the government for information about the death claims.
"If in fact FEMA has 192 extra cases, and they're basically not providing information to the medical examiners in those counties ... we as a commission want to know, what are the circumstances that FEMA believes (are) storm-related?" Nelson said.
"What kind of proof are they (requiring) to disburse federal funds?" Nelson added. "Can I just call and say Aunt Myrtle's death was hurricane-related?"
No hurricane conditions
The agency's hurricane payments are already under investigation by a U.S. Senate committee, prompted by legislators' concerns over $31 million given to Miami-Dade residents after Frances. Last month, 14 FEMA aid recipients in the county were arrested on federal fraud charges.
The bulk of disaster aid in Miami-Dade went for appliances, TVs and other items residents claimed were damaged by Frances, even though the storm brought no hurricane conditions to the county. The government approved $23,608 for the five funeral claims in Miami-Dade.
FEMA pays for funerals, burial, cremation and other expenses "related to a death caused by the disaster" for families with no insurance to cover the costs, according to its Web site.
"Disaster-related deaths are not limited to only those deaths that occur during the actual event," FEMA said in its statement to the newspaper. "Someone may die of a heart attack while cleaning up heavy disaster debris, from injuries sustained in a fall while repairing a damaged roof, or trauma suffered from dangers."
Medical examiners use the same criteria when ruling deaths as storm-related, Nelson said.