Is Katrina aid here helping the needy?

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 5, 2005

St. John not immune to possible fraud attempts



LAPLACE — In Mississippi, authorities have been looking for a woman who charged people $50 to use her &#8220super-duper FEMA phone,” so they could bypass busy signals encountered trying to call in FEMA claims.

In Florida during a past hurricane, an investigation was begun to see why FEMA paid funeral costs for more than 200 people who died of cancer, AIDS, heart disease and other things that had nothing to do with the storm, after numerous people claimed of &#8220hurricane related deaths.”

In Houston, an estimated 7,000 people a day collected aid at a church center, with some people coming through as much as three times a day. Checks there were for $360 individually, or up to $1,565 for a family of five-and &#8220everybody was claiming they had five kids,” an official said.

In Louisiana, a campground got into the price gouging game, an attorney general official said, after they were allowing evacuees to stay only if they paid $900 in monthly fees.

The stories are endless. With every hurricane disaster is the long list of those trying to take advantage of the good will of others. And right here in St. John Parish, it is hard to tell how much is different.

The Salvation Army moved its relief center for the entire Southeast Louisiana region to LaPlace, setting up an aid operation that was open daily for weeks. Only recently did it close. There was a drive-up line on Airline Highway where people could show up to get a hot meal, large food donations, cleaning supplies, personal items, water and more. Cars and trucks would pull through the line and literally be loaded with supplies. Volunteers had come to Louisiana from across the country, all with the intent to try and help those most in need, as is the Salvation Army’s goal.

The center would open at 10 a.m. and stay open well into the afternoon. Those driving down Airline Highway saw the line begin to stretch all the way down the highway every day.

Additionally, a FEMA relief center was opened on Belle Terre Boulevard, where people could sign up with many different kinds of help through a host of federal agencies.

But is the help really going to the truly needy? An investigation by L’Observateur that covered several weeks raised many questions about who was getting the assistance. The vast majority of those getting assistance here were right from St. John Parish, where damage was minimal for most people at best. (See detailed list with this story.)

And even those working on the line, most as volunteers only trying to help in this crisis situation, wondered about some of the people who continually showed up for help.

&#8220After a while you get to recognize the people,” a National Guard soldier who directed traffic said. &#8220I would see some people come five or six times, and finally I’d ask them, ‘How much help do you need?’ Some of them would finally quit coming if I said something.”

He added that the most surprising aspect to the numerous people who showed up over-and-over was the attitude they had about it.

&#8220Even when I would say things, I was really surprised to see that they weren’t the least bit ashamed that I noticed them coming many times,” he said. &#8220It was really unbelievable.”

For those who took advantage of the Salvation Army assistance line, there was no checking system of any kind for those who came through. Volunteers on the line, many who have come from all over the United States just to try and help, trusted that those getting in line were truly needy.

&#8220As servants of God, we are not here to judge,” Salvation Army Capt. Debbie Osborn said. &#8220We just do what the word says, and we try to help. But we know that in any social services, there are always a few who will take advantage.”

At the FEMA center on Belle Terre Boulevard, FEMA Center Manager Donald Quinn has been working relief efforts for 12 years and understands that the system will not be perfect.

&#8220We do personal investigations to ensure they need the help,” he said. &#8220And in the long run, I believe the system will prove good and help most of the time to the right people. But we know that some will receive benefits who should not. We just do the best we can.”

Experts estimate that the fraud rate for relief efforts such as this will be 5 percent, following the pattern of large government expenditures in the past. That is still a huge amount of money when considering the government may be putting out $200 billion, bringing about a fraud total of $10 billion.

At the Salvation Army site in LaPlace, the assistance continued two months after the hurricane hit, with a long line of cars getting in place every day as long as the gate was opened to offer free items. &#8220We know that they will be here as long as we open the line,” Capt. Osborn said. &#8220But the decision to stop will come from those above us. The powers that be will assess when the need is over.”

Within two weeks of the final L’Observateur investigation, the Salvation Army stopped their local assistance line, moving the main food operation closer to the hardest hit disaster area in New Orleans.