Natural disasters bring out the best and worst in people. And an example of the latter is occurring around the state, as FEMA inspectors show up at the homes of people who did not ask for government help.
After Hurricane Ida, people could apply for disaster assistance online, and the agency has distributed hundreds of millions in aid that is intended for victims.
Baton Rouge resident Terry Alario was not a victim and he did not file a claim.
But he was watching the Saints play the New York Giants in New Orleans last week when he got a call from his wife, who had stayed home. An inspector from Vanguard Inspector Services, a FEMA subcontractor the agency hires for post-storm claim verification, was at their door, she told him.
“It’s just something you expect to happen with disasters,” said Nathan Custer, a FEMA spokesperson. “This one being huge in scope just intensifies the problem. We’re getting into not only fraud, but it’s also identity theft. They sort of go hand in hand.”
FEMA urges anyone who experiences suspected fraud to report it to local law enforcement, Custer said.
Natural disasters present a dilemma for the agency, which has become much better run since its spectacular meltdown following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Distribute aid quickly and liberally, and scammers will inevitably take advantage. Spend too much time verifying claims for residents with urgent needs, and aid will inevitably arrive too late.
Hurricane Katrina taught us that it is better to offer help expeditiously and prosecute fraud aggressively after the fact than to burden desperate people with red tape and paperwork.