The media has so far only given a passing glance to the major report issued this week by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security about misuse of FEMA money in the wake of Florida's 2004 hurricanes.

That's too bad, because the stinging report -- which was inspired by excellent investigative coverage in the Florida Sun-Sentinel -- opens a window the way politics has plagued "natural disasters" policy for years, affecting millions of people. Among the agency's findings, as reported in the Washington Post yesterday:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency made $31 million in questionable payments to residents of Miami-Dade County for damage from Hurricane Frances last September even though the storm caused only minimal damage in that area of Florida, government investigators said yesterday.

More than $8 million of that amount was given to 4,300 people to rent temporary housing even though they had not asked for the money, and in many cases their homes were almost completely undamaged by the storm.

FEMA paid to replace thousands of televisions, air conditioners, beds and other furniture, as well as a number of cars, without receipts, or proof of ownership or damage, and based solely on verbal statements by the residents, sometimes made in fleeting encounters at fast-food restaurants.

Most news stories about FEMA's loose purse in Florida have played the "inefficient government" angle, but the real story is the politics:

Homeland Security sources said FEMA's efforts to distribute funds quickly after Frances and three other hurricanes that hit the key political battleground state of Florida in a six-week period last fall were undertaken with a keen awareness of the coming presidential election.

The Frances overpayments "are questionable given the timing of the election and Florida's importance" as a battleground state, said J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America who was a top federal flood-insurance official in the 1970s and 1980s.
The politicization of disaster aid is, of course, nothing new. As Colorado scholars Mary Downton and Roger Pielke found in a 2001 study (pdf) of over 30 years of FEMA data, disaster declarations have historically spiked 50% in presidential election years, with both parties playing the game. Indeed, as Pielke noted this past March, "Did the federal government play politics in its response to the 2004 hurricanes in Florida? We should only be surprised if this were not the case."

But it's still an outrage, especially given how many "natural disasters" -- which often aren't "natural" at all, but the results of bad policy and economic greed -- never receive federal aid, and how these disasters disproportionately hit the poor and communities of color.

In you're interested in this issue, check out our recent issue of Southern Exposure: "Acts of God? How Natural are 'Natural Disasters?'" which features award-winning journalists investigating the politics and economics behind hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and other "natural disasters."