WASHINGTON – Congress approved an additional $52 billion for Hurricane Katrina relief Thursday as Democrats continued to question the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s competence to handle America’s largest-ever disaster assistance fund.

“After everything that has happened with FEMA, is there anyone who believes that we should continue to let the money go to FEMA and be distributed by them?” asked Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate’s Democratic leader.

Reid said the federal government is likely to spend “a minimum of $150 billion” in disaster assistance overall.

Critics charge FEMA has a record of failure that dates back years, including allegations that it misspent tens of millions of dollars in disaster aid after four hurricanes struck Florida last year.

As lawmakers passed the aid package, President Bush announced that families displaced by Katrina would be eligible for $2,000 in immediate assistance through FEMA. The House approved the measure 410-11; the Senate vote was 97-0.

While they voted for the aid package, some Democrats hammered away at FEMA for its slow response to the Katrina disaster. Republicans accused their colleagues of politicizing the relief effort.

“Here we are on the floor of the House appropriating $50 billion to an agency that has a record of poor performance and leadership without qualification for the job,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House Democratic leader.

“It’s too important to play politics with,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said of the relief effort. “It’s too important to point fingers … “You didn’t do this. You didn’t do that,”‘ he said, calling the relief effort to date “a phenomenal accomplishment.”

Republicans, including Bush, have acknowledged mistakes were made, particularly in the early days of the disaster, which destroyed broad swaths along the Gulf Coast and drowned New Orleans.

Bush has so far stood by FEMA Director Michael Brown, whose lack of emergency management experience has been cited by critics.

“Things did not go perfectly; we all know that,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. “There was a systemwide failure at the local level, at the state level and at the federal level. We’ve got to put partisanship aside.”

The last time FEMA was called upon to oversee a multibillion-dollar emergency response, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general questioned at least $31 million in payments to individuals who might not have needed it.

Last year, when four hurricanes battered Florida, the inspector general found that FEMA designated Miami-Dade County as a disaster area even though the storms did little damage there. The total federal relief effort after those storms amounted to nearly $12 billion.

“As a result, individuals and households not severely affected by the hurricane were eligible for assistance,” Richard Skinner, the acting inspector general, told the Senate in May.

“This situation,” he added, “strained FEMA’s inspection resources, tested program controls, and made the (program) more susceptible to potential fraud, waste and abuse.”

The inspector general also found that FEMA failed to properly verify loss claims, provided housing assistance to people who never asked for it, hired unqualified damage inspectors and paid for the funerals of people whose deaths were not related to the storm.

Brown defended FEMA’s response to the 2004 storms: “We know there was some assistance given incorrectly, perhaps through errors in data entry, inspections, and even through fraudulent claims. While I make no excuses for those errors, I am proud of how few errors have surfaced,” he told the Senate.

The federal government’s problems with disaster relief did not begin there. In the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, a report from the congressional General Accounting Office said FEMA and other federal agencies fell short in providing early assistance to victims in South Florida.

“Improving the nation’s response capability to catastrophic disasters is essential. We may well face disasters or emergencies that could affect even more people than Hurricane Andrew did,” it said.

(J. Scott Orr can be contacted at scott.orr(at)newhouse.com)

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