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FEMA found to aid higher-income groups

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- After Hurricane Wilma, a Hollywood, Fla., surgeon received money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a generator. A lawyer in Plantation received $274 more from the agency than he paid for his generator. Yet, a Fort Lauderdale teenager with serious medical problems had to insert catheters by candlelight when the Oct. 24 storm knocked out power. His family could not afford a generator.

A FEMA program to reimburse applicants for generators and storm cleanup items has benefited middle- and upper-income Floridians the most and has so far cost taxpayers more than $332 million for the past two hurricane seasons, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found in a continuing investigation of disaster aid.

For Wilma alone, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had spent $84 million by last Monday on generators for 101,028 people in 13 Florida counties.

By agreement with the state, which pays 25 percent of the cost, FEMA reimburses for generators, chain saws, dehumidifiers, air purifiers, and wet-dry vacuums purchased for home use after a disaster.

For the four Florida hurricanes in 2004, the reimbursements amounted to $242 million. Eighty percent of the money went to applicants in middle- and upper-income areas.

FEMA imposes no income restrictions, but leaves it up to states to choose what will be reimbursed in each disaster. States can elect to exclude certain items or limit eligibility, but Florida's policy remains one of the most generous of the hurricane-vulnerable states. ''It's absolutely disgusting," said David Bronstein, an insurance fraud lawyer in Plantation. Bronstein put in a claim for a generator he bought when his Davie home lost electricity from Wilma. He said he ''makes six figures" and could ''certainly afford my own." Bronstein was surprised that he qualified but more surprised when his government check arrived for $836, the maximum amount. He paid $562, including tax.

Dr. Arthur Palamara of Hollywood, a vascular surgeon and candidate for the state House of Representatives, got an $836 check from FEMA for a generator he bought a week after Wilma, and he now is debating whether to cash it.

''My sons are giving me a hard time, saying, 'You don't really deserve the money,' " said Palamara, who lives in a home assessed at $1.1 million.

When Wilma knocked out power to Debbie Springston's Fort Lauderdale home, she begged FEMA for a generator for her son Marcus, 18, who was born with heart and kidney ailments. ''FEMA said, 'Go buy a generator' and they'll reimburse us for it, but we didn't have money," she said. Marcus uses catheters several times a day to remove bodily wastes. With no electricity, he performed the task using light from a battery-operated lamp and, when that failed, some small candles. After a week, the family moved to a motel paid for by their homeowner's insurance.

FEMA did not respond to requests for comment on the newspaper's findings.

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