Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Three out of four funeral claims the federal government paid after last year's hurricanes in Florida covered deaths unrelated to any of the storms, a state review has concluded.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave families up to $7,500 each to bury or cremate loved ones whose deaths were supposed to be a direct result of one of the four hurricanes that struck the state last August and September.
But Florida's medical examiners reviewed 306 deaths FEMA approved statewide and found just 74 could be blamed on the storms. In the other 232 cases, the cause of death was suicide, unrelated accidents or natural ailments such as cancer, heart attacks or emphysema.
"It fits the pattern of sloppiness," said U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla.
FEMA's disaster aid program has been under criticism since the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported last fall on $31 million going to residents of Miami-Dade County, one of the few areas of the state not hit by last year's hurricanes.
In an investigative series published earlier this week, the newspaper found similar patterns of waste and fraud in disaster assistance across the country. FEMA gave at least $330 million in five years to applicants in areas with little or no reported damage from fires, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, the investigation found.
It's unclear exactly how much FEMA overspent on funerals in Florida. The agency has refused to provide details of the claims, citing privacy laws. Based on the average payment of $4,130, nearly $1 million in hurricane funeral assistance went for deaths that medical examiners say were not caused by the storms.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., blames politics. Florida was a swing state in last year's election, won by George W. Bush. His brother Jeb is governor of Florida.
"I think it's no coincidence that they made these payments in an election year," Wasserman Schultz said. "It backs up many people's concerns that FEMA has transformed into an agency of political patronage."
FEMA has changed its funeral assistance policy, spokeswoman Frances Marine said in an e-mail to the paper.
"We have strengthened our guidance for this year - requiring caseworkers to obtain certification from a licensed medical professional ... of disaster relatedness - and added oversight from top ranking FEMA and state officials," she wrote.
Florida's Medical Examiners Commission began reviewing the deaths after the Sun-Sentinel reported in April that FEMA funeral claims were almost three times higher than the official hurricane death toll. The newspaper reported in August on the preliminary findings of the review showing at least 203 deaths not caused by the storms.
Since then, the medical examiner in the Florida Panhandle completed a review of deaths there and found even more cases that could not be connected to the hurricanes, including five terminally ill cancer patients. In Escambia County, FEMA paid funeral benefits for a man who shot himself "due to fight with girlfriend," a 92-year-old nursing home patient with Alzheimer's Disease, and a woman who died of "natural disease 76 days post hurricane," according to medical examiner records.
Elsewhere in Florida, FEMA funeral assistance went to the widows of a Palm Beach County millionaire who died in a hospital two days before Hurricane Frances and a Port Charlotte man who died of cirrhosis and heart failure five months after Hurricane Charley.
In all, FEMA paid at least 320 hurricane funeral claims in Florida. The medical examiners only reviewed 306 because several deaths were in other states. In two cases, officials found no record of the people having died.
"My big question is why in the world are they paying on a death when there's no death certificate?" Shaw said. "Why wouldn't they require a death certificate before they would even consider a claim?"
In approving the claims, FEMA accepted news accounts of deaths and letters from doctors. Several families told the Sun-Sentinel FEMA gave them money after doctors wrote that stress from the hurricanes might have contributed to deaths that medical examiners ruled were a result of heart disease or other natural causes.