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Congress probes FEMA fraud in Florida

There are questions over how the federal government spent money in Florida last year, after it was hit by a record four hurricanes.  Congress is preparing hearings on what could be a multi-million dollar rip-off, reports NBC's Kerry Sanders.

When four hurricanes walloped Florida last year, the federal government declared the entire state a disaster area. That declaration is required before the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can swoop in and offer help. 

But in Miami-Dade County, where the National Hurricane Center clocked wind gusts at only 59 miles per hour — well short of a hurricane — more than 12,000 residents still applied to FEMA for emergency money. And investigators say without even checking all the claims, FEMA handed out more than $31 million.

Internal FEMA documents obtained by NBC News show inspectors' notes, including more than $18,000 paid to one Miami-Dade resident for "excessive damage to clothing" and "excessive damage to furnishings." The note reads, "replace all and bedroom." But on that same report the inspector notes the level of damage as "none."

The same thing happened at another home, also in Miami-Dade, where more than $19,000 was handed over to replace "clothing ... furnishings" and "TVs, two air conditioners, a washer, a dryer, a telephone."

"We found that people ripped off the program with virtually no consequences," says Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

"People down there did suffer, did have damage and FEMA did pay people in Miami-Dade who were eligible to receive assistance from us," responds FEMA undersecretary Michael Brown.

There are areas that desperately need FEMA help, like Wauchula, Fla. in Hardee County, where 75 percent of the homes were damaged by the hurricanes. Two of the three firehouses there are in ruins.

"Folks are still dialing 911," says Michael Choate, the public safety director of Hardee Co. "They expect us to show up."

County officials say FEMA money was promised, but today, almost nine months later, there's still no money to rebuild.

"It's hard to justify, on the one hand, why people are getting new things in their homes in South Florida, while people that have no homes aren’t getting the help that they need in Central Florida," says Richard Shepard, the emergency management director for Hardee Co.

It's those types of problems that have some who live in the hurricane zones now asking, "What will happen this coming hurricane season? Will there be new rules making it harder to get government help when it's most needed?"