I think we all know by now that the Bush assministration threw buckets of cash at Florida after the hurricanes last year in order to help Chimpy win the state’s electors. Take funeral expenses as a furinstance: FEMA paid for the funerals of 315 people, when only 123 actually died as a result of the storms.
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.
In one case, a Federal Emergency Management Agency worker tried unsuccessfully to persuade a coroner to count among the hurricane casualties a “morbidly obese” heart patient who purportedly was “scared to death.”
“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 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 constitute the official death toll from the storms. “We’re the keepers of the count,” Nelson said.
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.
“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?”
“In almost every instance, their phone call or fax was the first we even heard of these deaths,” Nelson said. “The only thing they could tell us that would even make this storm-related was maybe they had a heart attack or just happened to die at the time of the storm. … We finally told them, `That sounds a lot like fraud to us.'”
In Avon Park, Highlands County, FEMA paid the funeral expenses of a stroke victim even though the medical examiner ruled it was unrelated to the storms.
Irma Cruz suffered from high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
Eight days before Hurricane Jeanne, Cruz, 62, suffered a stroke, her second in a year, and died at a local hospital the day the storm came ashore.
Cruz spent Frances in a shelter, said her daughter, Wanda Colon. A shelter worker told Colon her mother was “very afraid.”
“When she heard about Jeanne, she got very scared,” Colon said.
Colon never thought to ask FEMA for help. But when she filed a damage claim on her home, a government worker asked if she had funeral expenses.
“I said, `Well, my momma, she died the same day of the hurricane,'” Colon said. “They say, `If you bring the paper, FEMA will pay.'”
FEMA gave Colon about $7,000 for her mother’s funeral, she said.
Medical Examiner Nelson still does not consider Cruz’s death a result of the hurricane.
“Nowhere in any of the medical records that I have does anyone even raise the issue that her death may/might be related to a hurricane,” he said. “She’d already been in the hospital for eight days before the hurricane even made land.”