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Federal agency tricked into paying for funerals

A government emergency management agency paid for hundreds of funerals last year of people whose deaths had nothing to do with the four hurricanes that hit Florida.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A government agency paid for hundreds of funerals last year of people whose deaths had nothing to do with the four hurricanes that hit Florida, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Wednesday.

One person died before the storm even struck his town, while another died a month later in another state.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved 319 hurricane funeral claims in Florida for $1.3 million.

Families: stress from hurricanes contributed to deaths
Several of the families told the newspaper they gave FEMA letters from doctors saying stress from the hurricanes possibly contributed to deaths — even though medical examiners determined the deaths were caused by heart disease and other natural ailments.

According to a review by the state Medical Examiners Commission obtained by the newspaper, at least 203 of the 319 deaths were not caused by any of the four hurricanes, including:

  • A Vero Beach man who died Nov. 27 — more than a month after the last storm hit — of a heart attack in Texas. His widow said she gave FEMA a letter from her husband's cardiologist that connected his heart attack to stress from the hurricanes.
  • A Palm Beach Gardens man recovering from heart surgery who died two days before Hurricane Frances struck. His widow said she reported the death to FEMA because she thought the hospital was short-staffed while preparing for Frances.
  • A Miami infant born after Frances made landfall. The Miami-Dade County medical examiner said the 21-day-old infant died of an infection that was "clearly not storm-related."
  • A Port Charlotte man who died of liver cirrhosis and heart failure five months after Hurricane Charley. His wife said she provided a "cheat sheet" for the doctor who wrote that stress from the hurricanes "caused his body to become deteriorated, making it difficult to fight infection."

Cases not ‘even remotedly associated’ with hurricanes
"I can't begin to tell you what these people did to get some funding," said Rebecca Hamilton, the medical examiner for Lee County. "None of those cases were even remotely associated with any kind of a hurricane."

FEMA last week announced changes to its disaster assistance program, including how it awards funeral money. Among other things, applicants must now provide signed documentation from a coroner or doctor attributing the death to the disaster.

The newspaper reported that FEMA refused to explain the claims, citing privacy laws, but gave the names of the dead to the medical examiners with a warning not to publicly release them. The commission determined the claims were public documents under Florida law and released them to the Sun-Sentinel.

FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews told The Associated Press on Wednesday that "under federal law, FEMA is precluded from releasing information that is protected by the privacy act." She did say that more than two-thirds of the funeral claims that FEMA processed were denied.