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FEMA Answers Earthquake Disaster With a Blizzard of Aid Checks


REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — The way governments show disaster victims they care is to write checks. And in response to the Northridge earthquake, FEMA officials have issued nearly a quarter-million of them and are continuing to crank out thousands more each day.

Administering that dose of concern requires linking telephone operators in Texas and Virginia to a vast computer network cobbled together in a leased Redwood City office building. The system relies on powerful hand-held computers and on damage inspectors who earn more the faster they work. It tries to sort out the greedy without discouraging the truly needy.

Eleven weeks after the most expensive disaster in U.S. history, more than 2,000 FEMA workers continue working long days, processing the requests of those who were displaced, those who need help in making repairs--and some who officials say are merely angling for a sliver of the multibillion-dollar aid pie.

Residents of the area affected by the quake have turned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help about half a million times, with three-quarters of those applicants seeking some type of temporary housing or emergency repair assistance.

Although not the most costly, the housing programs are the most vast and reach by far the most victims. Aid applications have continued to pour in by the thousands.

Although officials said the percentage of applications deemed eligible is declining, the system is growing in order to process appeals and complaints and to file the mounting stacks of paperwork.

"It's very costly to the government to continue to keep these facilities open and yet we don't turn our backs on people if they need assistance," said FEMA spokesman Phil Cogan. "But there comes a time when it ceases to be cost-effective."

Telephoned applications are typed directly into the computer system, but applications completed at the 10 centers still open in Los Angeles and Ventura counties are shipped nightly by Federal Express.

They are sent to the temporary processing center that occupies leased space in the Redwood City office building, costing the government $120,000 a month.

Although things have slowed down considerably, the pace of work for the hundreds of clerks and computer operators and envelope stuffers here still is frenetic at times.

"Initially, people were working seven days a week and we had shifts around the clock," said Michael Polny, the FEMA official in charge of the processing operation. "Now, no one is working more than 12 hours a day and they are taking at least one day off a week."

Once applications are entered into the rows and rows of computer terminals, the highly automated system takes over. Workers check addresses and the award amounts for accuracy several times, but field inspectors are the ones who usually determine whether losses are sufficient to make a claimant eligible.

Using their hand-held computers, the army of about 600 inspectors still working seven days a week retrieves a list of aid applicants from an electronic mailbox on the Compuserve information network, and then makes inspection appointments.

The key to the outcome, said Peter Wessell, an inspector with one of two FEMA subcontractors, is whether repairs are necessary to make a dwelling "safe, secure and sanitary." Inspectors enter the scope and type of damage into the hand-held computer, which is programmed to automatically calculate the cost of repairs. The inspector then must decide whether the damage is sufficient to require federal help to make the repairs or to mandate alternative housing.

"If it's mostly . . . cosmetic cracks throughout and that is all it is, that is not a hazard," he said. "It's just something that has to be dealt with."

Wessell does as many 20 inspections a day, for which he is paid $24 each. His inspections cover the FEMA housing assistance program as well as the state-run, low-income grant program to replace essential personal property, such as appliances and clothing. He said most, but not all, of the inspections he is conducting now result in rejections.

FEMA officials said the inspectors, who are supposed to have three years of construction experience, usually determine the outcome of a request. "The inspector is the key person," Polny said. "If the inspector hits the insufficient damage button . . . that would automatically generate an 'ineligible' letter."

The completed inspections are shipped back to the Compuserve mailbox nightly, from which they are retrieved by computers in Redwood City. Inspectors can flag some reports for review by someone more experienced with FEMA aid programs, but the vast majority are merely checked for completeness and the computer determines the amount of aid.

Next, the computer prints out letters to be sent to those eligible for aid. Separately, documents authorizing the payment are sent electronically to the U.S Treasury Department in San Francisco. Checks go out the same day, usually about three weeks after the original receipt of an application.

Chal Overdorff, the FEMA official in charge of certifying which checks to issue, said the work is satisfying. "What we're doing is getting a check to individuals who need it," he said. "It's a nice feeling."

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