MOBILE, Ala. – When Hurricane Katrina knocked out power to Lakeshia Watson’s public housing apartment, she opened a window.

An air conditioner fell out, and water damaged a mattress and clothing, said the 23-year-old tenant of Roger Williams Homes.

“It wasn’t bad,” she said. “It just was rain coming in.”

Watson called the Federal Emergency Management Agency and got $2,000 in emergency aid.

A bathroom ceiling partially collapsed in the modest house Thelma Robinson rents. A sofa in front of a fireplace got wet, as did other living room furniture, from the family opening the door to watch the hurricane.

“A lot of that rain came because we were just looking at the storm,” said Robinson, 35. “Not too much damage, but it messed up a lot of clothes.”

She collected $2,000 from FEMA.

Water leaked in through a window in Stacy Taylor’s government-subsidized apartment, damaging a television and VCR. She got $2,000 but was turned down for more money after a FEMA inspector visited.

“They said I didn’t have enough damage,” said Taylor, 21. “All I wanted them to do was pay for my TV and VCR.”

In Mobile County, on the eastern fringes of Katrina, at least 85,000 residents – more than half the total number of households – have applied for FEMA aid. The storm destroyed homes in waterfront communities including Bayou La Batre and Dauphin Island but damaged only about 1,700 residences overall, said Walt Dickerson, the county’s emergency management director.

In the first three weeks after the storm, more than 17,000 Mobile County applicants had collected the government’s $2,000 emergency payments meant for victims displaced by Katrina.

At disaster relief centers, on front porches and in the streets, talk turned to what to say when calling FEMA.

“I heard if you said the right thing on the phone – you had to evacuate, you didn’t stay – they were giving people $2,000,” said Melissa Toney, 37. “They gave you money over the phone. What kind of mess was that?”

Toney said she did not get the $2,000. “I’m trying to figure out what did I say wrong?”

So many Mobile residents got disaster aid after the 2003 storm that caused only minor damage that the county’s emergency management director at the time wrote to the head of FEMA, “Something is wrong.” The money kept coming, ultimately reaching $29.5 million.

After Ivan, which inflicted less damage on Mobile than Katrina, FEMA gave out $56.1 million to more than 28,000 applicants.

Authorities have received more than 200 reports of Katrina fraud in Mobile County.


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