With hundreds of thousands forced from homes battered by Hurricane Katrina, the federal government cut red tape to rush $2,000 checks and debit cards to help victims pay for clothes, food, transportation and a place to live.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency intended the aid for displaced Gulf Coast families and limited it to one payment per household.

But in three Louisiana parishes, FEMA issued more checks than there are households, at a cost to taxpayers of at least $70 million, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigation has found.

And in 36 parishes and counties in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, FEMA awarded $102 million to at least 51,000 more applicants than local officials said were displaced by the storm.

The newspaper’s findings are based on a review of $1.46 billion in FEMA claims paid through Sept. 22 and interviews with local officials from 54 counties and parishes.

Some of the same patterns of waste and fraud found after Florida’s four hurricanes last year are occurring in the Gulf Coast states despite assurances by federal officials that steps have been taken to curb abuses.

In Mobile, Ala., residents coached each other on the right words to use when calling FEMA to get the $2,000. Many who received the money never had to leave their homes. Some had minor roof leaks. One said her furniture got wet because she kept opening her door to watch the storm.

“Unbelievable,” said Mobile Police Lt. Christon Dorsey, a member of a hurricane fraud task force.

He estimated fewer than 300 Mobile County residents were displaced and in need of emergency aid, not the 17,050 who collected $34.1 million.

“That’s unreal,” he said. “That’s extremely disproportionate to what it should be.”

In Pike County, Miss., Katrina displaced 25 families, yet 2,494 collected nearly $5 million and “made a ton of money,” said Civil Defense Director Richard Coghlan.

“I’ll tell you, it was Christmas,” Coghlan said. “We’re talking plasma TVs. We’re talking stereos. We’re talking bicycles.”

In Louisiana’s Iberville Parish, 70 miles from Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans, the storm knocked down trees and power lines but caused no major damage, said emergency manager Laurie Doiron. Still, 819 parish residents received $1.6 million from the federal government.

“I can’t possibly fathom 819 people needing $2,000 in immediate assistance,” she said. “What do I attribute that to? FEMA being free with the money, too free with the money.”

The Sun-Sentinel previously reported that FEMA paid $31 million in Hurricane Frances aid to residents of Miami-Dade County, one of the few areas of Florida not hit by last year’s four hurricanes. And, in a series of reports last month, the newspaper identified more than $330 million over five years going to applicants across the country who never suffered the devastating effects of disasters.

FEMA officials have assured Congress they have fixed many of the problems, but Richard Skinner, inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, told the Sun-Sentinel this week “we have not validated” that.

Skinner said he is aware Katrina emergency aid payments far exceed the number of families local officials report as being displaced.

“This has been brought to our attention and we are looking into it,” he wrote in an e-mail to the newspaper.

Asked to explain how FEMA could issue more checks than there are households in the three Louisiana parishes, Skinner wrote: “This is what we will find out through our ongoing work.”

Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, has established an Office for Hurricane Katrina Oversight and dispatched teams of auditors and investigators to “ensure disaster assistance funds are being spent wisely.” So far, 14 people have been charged with fraud in connection with the $2,000 aid payments, according to the department. “We expect many more,” Skinner said.

FEMA began the $2,000 “expedited assistance” a week after Katrina devastated coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, and as the government faced criticism for its slow response.

“Through FEMA, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has dramatically streamlined its procedures to urgently expedite these payments of $2,000 per household,” the government announced Sept. 10.

“We are committed to cutting red tape and getting help to people who need it,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. “We are getting real assistance in record time.”

FEMA waived its usual procedure of sending an inspector to an applicant’s home to first verify damage. Instead, it approved payments based on a phone call or online application, which the agency said took 20 minutes.

Every four hours, FEMA sent information on those approved to the U.S. Department of Treasury, which then issued checks or deposited the money directly into the applicant’s bank account. For two days, FEMA issued the $2,000 through debit cards to evacuees at Texas shelters.

The aid was intended for those “severely impacted” by the storm who did not “have the usual means of identifying damage to their property or are unable to provide the immediate documentation necessary,” a Sept. 7 FEMA news release said.

“Nearly $690 million in assistance helping … families displaced by Katrina,” the government announced three days later. Money was in hand or on the way to thousands of storm victims “who are hurting, and in many cases, far from home,” Chertoff said.

As the money flowed, local officials encountered confusion and anger by residents over why some got $2,000 and others didn’t. FEMA did not answer the newspaper’s questions about its criteria for awarding the money. One rule the government made clear: One payment per household.

Yet in Orleans Parish, ground zero for Katrina, FEMA gave $458 million to 224,008 applicants. That’s 41,888 more than the estimate of households in the parish as of 2004, according to Claritas, a leading U.S. demographics research firm. The difference translates to $83.8 million.

In St. Bernard Parish, FEMA issued 3,929 more expedited payments than households – $7.9 million – and in Plaquemines Parish the difference was 1,876 payments, or $3.8 million.

Even after adding all those living in college dorms, nursing homes, military quarters and institutions, the number of recipients still exceeds possible applicants in the three parishes by nearly 35,000 – for a total of $69.9 million.

FEMA did not explain the discrepancy and instead released a statement saying the government responded to the “largest natural disaster our nation has faced” and had to help victims dispersed across the country, “many far from home with nothing but the clothes on their back.”

“While the system may not have been perfect, if any have taken advantage of it by lying to FEMA in order to make an easy buck, we will work with the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force to seek full prosecution.”

Across the country, authorities have arrested people who collected FEMA payments using false addresses, including a north Florida couple who claimed they lost homes in Slidell, La., and then spent some of their $4,000 on cocaine, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in western Louisiana.

Two inmates at the Avoyelles Women’s Correctional Center in Cottonport, La., are under investigation for claiming to be Katrina victims in applications to FEMA.

“They couldn’t have been displaced. They were incarcerated,” said Harry Normand, chief criminal deputy of the Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Jailhouse workers intercepted their FEMA checks.

Some local officials said FEMA may have been motivated to hand out money without adequate controls to counter criticism. In the early days after the storm, the government was repeatedly accused of abandoning victims and waiting too long to send in troops and supplies.

“I suspect after the bad publicity that they just started throwing money out,” said Ronnie Hughes, president of Ascension, La. Parish, where 1,552 residents collected $3.1 million. “We did not have 1,500 families displaced in Ascension Parish, I can tell you that.”

At a news conference earlier this month, President George W. Bush praised the expedited aid program.

“We’ve done a good job of getting $2,000 to people,” Bush said. “I think that the notion of helping people immediately worked pretty good. It worked good because the government responded with the checks.”

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