By the time Hurricane Katrina reached Jackson, Mississippi, its winds were only 47 mph, with occasional gusts of up to 74 mph. These gusts knocked down trees and power lines, and damaged some roofs. Only 50 or 60 houses in the Jackson area were declared uninhabitable. Right after Katrina hit, the Bush administration declared 15 Mississippi coastal counties disaster areas. By September 7, at the request of the state of Mississippi, this disaster zone was extended 220 miles inland, and later, it was extended to include 47 counties, some 200 miles further north than the northernmost disaster area in Louisiana.
According to a report in the New York Times, the only "damage" sustained by 30,000 households receiving aid was food spoilage caused by power outages. There have been around a thousand reports of fraud in the Jackson area, but most of the money was provided by legal means. One Jackson resident, who was unafraid to provide her name to a Times reporter, lost power during Katrina and collected $900, which she claims was her right as a citizen of Mississippi. Since FEMA and Red Cross money was provided, there has been a steady increase in the purchase of guns, jewelry, and electronic equipment in the Jackson area.
FEMA and the Red Cross have responded to this situation by saying that time was of the utmost importance--that they could not make the kinds of checks that were needed because people urgently needed aid after the storm. This is true. The question is: Why did the federal government allow a minimally affected region of Mississippi to be declared a disaster area?
It wasn't a new mistake, if indeed, that's what it was. After Hurricane Frances hit Florida last year, FEMA gave $31 million to residents of Miami-Dade, where there was hardly any damage. $62 million was distributed by FEMA this year in and around Jackson; the Red Cross distributed $32 million.
Larry Fisher, director of the Hinds County emergency department, says he did receive a call from FEMA, who was curious as to why so much money was being poured into a region in which a total of about 50 houses were uninhabitable. "You are going to increase your number," a FEMA spokesperson allegedly told Fisher. Fisher refused to change the records, and invited the agency to conduct an investigation. FEMA officials say they are not aware of the phone call.
Though the focus of the legal fake claims is Jackson, there was a also a situation in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, in which three mobile homes were damaged, but 403 families received FEMA emergency checks of $2,000 each.
While the people of Jackson, Mississippi wore their Rolexes and watched movies on their new DVD players, many of the residents of Waveland, Bay St. Louis, and Long Beach never even collected their $2,000 emergency checks because the federal government "ran out of money," a circumstance which occurred at exactly the same time the national news media vacated the area. In Louisiana, people cannot get FEMA trailers and therefore cannot return to the city, garbage is still piled on the street, and several areas have no power.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine said a week ago that "It is frustrating to me that FEMA seems incapable of paying legitimate claims quickly and effectively and yet reimburses fraudulent claims without asking any questions." For weeks, we were all bombarded by images of looters in New Orleans, and harsh words about putting money in the hands of Louisiana officials. However, the media has yet to address the looting of taxpayers by people in north Mississippi, who--in partnership with FEMA and the Red Cross, and possibly their state government--have intact houses, debris-free yards, and some extra cash for the holidays.