A week after a federal judge ruled that the Federal Emergency Management Agency unconstitutionally cut off housing aid to thousands of Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims (a ruling the agency is appealing), a government audit has found that FEMA has wasted tens of millions of dollars by issuing payments to ineligible people.

The improper payments made by FEMA's Individuals and Households Program were the topic of a hearing held this morning by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. In a prepared statement delivered at the hearing, titled "Hurricane Katrina: Stopping the Flood of Fraud, Waste, and Abuse," Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) criticized the "gross inadequacies of FEMA's control systems:"

The record is clear and disconcerting that, going forward, FEMA has much work to do before we can be confident that it is providing assistance to those who are eligible and who need it, while denying it to those who do not.

The audit conducted by the Government Accountability Office found that FEMA:

* paid $17 million in rental assistance to individuals to whom it had already provided free housing through trailers or apartments;

* made nearly $20 million in duplicate payments to thousands of individuals who claimed damages to the same property from both hurricanes Katrina and Rita; and

* made millions in potentially improper and/or fraudulent payments to nonqualified aliens who were not eligible for assistance.

GAO also found that FEMA had problems identifying and collecting improper payments, demonstrating the agency's need to establish a more effective fraud, waste and abuse prevention system:

For example, GAO previously estimated improper and potentially fraudulent payments related to the IHP application process to be $1 billion through February 2006. As of November 2006, FEMA identified about $290 million in improper payments and collected about $7 million.

GAO's previous examination of the Department of Homeland Security's purchase-card program also uncovered problems with property accountability. GAO looked at 246 items FEMA purchased for hurricane relief efforts using the cards and found that 85 items -- 34 percent of the total -- are still missing and presumed lost or stolen. They included laptops, printers, global positioning system units and flat-bottom boats.
 

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Meanwhile, on a more positive note, college students from across the country have begun signing up for what's being billed as "Louisiana Winter." Inspired by 1964's "Mississippi Summer," when 800 college students from across the country went to the state to register African-American voters, the project is the brainchild of San Jose State University sociology professor Scott Myers-Lipton.

The idea came to Myers-Lipton following last month's election night, when he and 40 SJSU students protesting homelessness watched the Spike Lee film, "When the Levees Broke: A Four-Part Requiem." The next morning, Myers-Lipton taught his class on New Deal-era civil works projects designed to ease the social suffering of the Great Depression. As he writes in his Social Solution to Poverty Weekly blog:

When I returned home from class, I was exhausted from the lack of sleep from the previous night. I sat down and read the newspaper about the victory of the Democrats nationally. Interestingly, there was an article about a Green Party candidate who was winning her bid to become mayor of Richmond, California, a predominantly African American city. One of her main platforms had been the development of a public works project for 1,000 youth to combat poverty and crime.

Then, the idea came to me. This is what is needed in the Gulf Coast: living wage jobs and the opportunity to rebuild their community.

I started to think that if the USA could put almost 1 million people to work in 2 weeks in 1935, we could put 100,000 people to work immediately today in the Gulf Coast.

Thus was born Myers-Lipton's idea for the Gulf Coast Civic Works Project. According to his proposal, the project would hire 100,000 Gulf Coast residents to rebuild New Orleans and the surrounding region. The project would be overseen by a new regional agency that would include community-based organizations from the Gulf Coast as well as politicians, school officials, engineers and others from the region. It aims to accomplish four main goals: provide citizens with living-wage jobs, make housing available, restore a sense of personal empowerment and hope, and restore citizens' faith in the government's ability to respond to people's needs.

Part of this larger project, Louisiana Winter -- set for Jan. 14 to 20 -- aims to turn the nation's attention to the Gulf Coast, allow students to witness the suffering there, and promote the immediate passage of federal legislation to implement the Gulf Coast Civic Works Project. Among the people who've endorsed Louisiana Winter are representatives of the NAACP and Bill Quigley, professor of law at New Orleans' Loyola University and a writer who frequently contributes to the Institute for Southern Studies' Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch .

The cost of such a works project would be modest compared to a boondoggle like the Iraq war, which has already cost taxpayers almost $350 billion, according to the National Priorities Project. Based on a ratio of labor to materials of 80 to 20 that was used under the Civil Works Administration of 1933-1934 and a wage rate of $12 per hour, the total cost of the project would $3.125 billion -- $2.5 billion for wages and $625 million for materials. It would be funded by a public-private partnership, with money coming from federal and state governments as well as insurance companies.

Press conferences to announce Louisiana Winter will be held Thursday, Dec. 14, one month before participating students are scheduled to begin arriving in the Gulf Coast. The press conferences will take place at 3 p.m. at the Federal Building in New Orleans and at 1 p.m. at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in San Jose.

For more details about Louisiana Winter, including information on how you can get involved or support the effort, click here.