Monday, February 20, 2006

FEMA, the Flood and Fraud

I've tried to be sanguine about the lies and distortions swirling around the Flood former known as Katrina in the national press, but this one struck me as odd and I decided I had to run it down. One member of the Congressional delegation this past weekend told the Times-Picayune he was concerned that that one third of claims for FEMA housing assistance were fraudulent.

A closer inspection finds that's not true, but truth doesn't matter in journalism anymore once an idea escapes into the daily news cycle. Most of what passes for cable "news" is actually a lot of moderately informed and highly opinionated people talking, and it carries about the same news value as a bunch of folks sitting in a bar talking.

A story that moved on the Associated Press wire Feb. 13 (published the 14th in most papers), included this:

The GAO report found that up to 900,000 of the 2.5 million applicants who received aid under the emergency cash assistance program, which included the debit cards, based their requests on duplicate or invalid Social Security numbers, or false addresses and names.
You mean some people tried to apply more than once after being given the FEMA runaround? How many of them were told to complete the questionnaire again by FEMA? As for fraudulent addresses, does that include people who couldn't even find other members of their family may have tried to apply for assistance from the same address? There are an awful lot of people in New Orleans driving around with "by their momma's" addresses on their drivers licenses, and nobody in Louisiana seems to think this constitutes fraud.

The actual amount of fraud is much smaller, according to the Washington Post version of this story:

Investigators said that so far they have learned that about 1,000 people who applied for aid used the Social Security numbers of dead people, 1,000 used numbers that were never issued, and tens of thousands used names, birthdates and Social Security numbers that did not match.
So, is it 900,000 or 2,000 fraudulent applications? How many of the tens of thousands cited actually gave data that didn't match up, or had their telephone applications munged up by FEMA, an agency widely noted of late for its incompetence and inefficiency?

This isn't fraud, certainly not on the scale people are suggesting. This is FEMA's own ineptitude, transferred to the victims.

I'm disappointed that the T-P let this one slide by unchallenged. The editorial board has been doing a bang-up job in setting the record straight. The paper needs to look into this one, because it has become a "meme", a bit of information just barely above gossip in the food chain that spreads via the Internet, talk radio and cable "news" networks and becomes accepted as fact.

These are the lies I wrote about just a few days ago, the lies that set off novelist and blogger Poppy Z. Brite and others on tirades this week against the fabrications that are drowning the city as surely as the negligent failure of the Federal levees.

When I started this blog in August one of my purposes was as a news aggregation site for the displaced, to try and gather up as much information from my safe perch 1,000 miles from the disaster as possible. It morphed quickly into commentary on and analysis of that information, since so much of what was being circulated was little better than rumor.

The more I try, the less certain I am we can staunch this tide any more than we could stop the waters rushing through the breeches. Many other NOLA bloggers are trying, as a casual trip through the list at right will show you. I have been around politics and the media too long to have any naive notions that we can completely overturn the edifice of talk radio and cable television that has replaced news with political posturing unconcerned with inconvenient truth.

If a disaster the scale of Katrina can't topple this behemoth, I don't know what can. Those of us in the blogosphere or in the few remaining outposts of journalism where the idea "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted" still has currency can try, but it is an almost quixotic task.

Quoted Congressman Lynn Westmoreland told the T-P he voted against the first major aid bill "because it was an invitation to fraud. " No one thought to ask him if his visit to New Orleans would change his future votes. At the end of the day, it is clear that powerful forces could not care less of New Orleans is rebuilt or not, and will happily tell any lie that saves them the bother and the expense.

It is up to ourselves.

". . . it carries about the same news value as a bunch of folks sitting in a bar talking."

Well said. Most of the folks who I sit in bars with are of the opinion that protecting their tax dollar, in the form of saying no to further aid, is the way to go. I argue, they learn, and sometimes the opinion changes. Sometimes.

More scary is the stubborn lack of action from authorities exposed to the same media information. I truly wish that the President, if no one else, was as well read/informed on this whole disaster as you, your readers and even me for that matter. Pretty obviously he isn't. It doesn't take a lot of research to learn that things are very wrong in LA and MS.
They choose not to listen to contradictory information. I think there is probably a clinical description in the mental health profession for handling reality this way, and I assume it's not considered health. The President lives in a bubble, and doens't really have a clue. He's about as in touch with every day American as Louis the 14th was with his subjects. It's the people around him do just don't care, because we are not on their agenda. We are a mere distraction.
I shouldn't fault the T/P for preferring he said/ she said journalism to fact checking, that seems to be the norm. But everybody please stop praising the T/P until they realize that he said/she said reporting doesn't cut it with Katrina reporting. Not that you praised them there, but they've been reluctant to do even the simple fact checking you can do with google.
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