FEMA mum on tornado money

After the 2008 Mother’s Day tornadoes in Georgia, the Federal Emergency Management Agency doled out nearly $2.5 million in grants to help those affected by the storms find a temporary place to live and repair their homes.

But the agency will not say who received that money, maintaining that it must protect the privacy of grant recipients. It also won’t release the recipients’ addresses — without their names — despite the fact that a federal appeals court has ordered the agency to do just that in the past.

That decision in 2007 came after several Florida newspapers requested similar information about grant recipients following the rash of hurricanes that hit that state in 2004. The case ended up in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction in Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

The court decided that the addresses of grant recipients should be released to help the public determine whether FEMA was distributing taxpayer money appropriately and in areas struck by the hurricanes.

“Plainly, disclosure of the addresses will help the public answer this question by shedding light on whether FEMA has been a good steward of billions of taxpayer dollars in the wake of several natural disasters across the country,” the judges wrote, “and we cannot find any privacy interests here that even begin to outweigh this public interest.”

After the court’s decision, FEMA released the addresses in Florida. But agency spokesman Bradley Carroll told The Telegraph the court order applied only to that case and its “unique circumstances.”

That explanation doesn’t hold water, said Steve Burns, an attorney for The Telegraph’s parent corporation, The McClatchy Co. Burns reviewed the court’s decision and determined FEMA should have released the addresses of tornado assistance recipients to The Telegraph.

And Lucy Dalglish, executive director for the Washington D.C.-based watchdog group The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called FEMA’s explanation “just plain stupid.”

“I find that absolutely astonishing,” Dalglish said. “After they spent all these tax dollars fighting this in Florida ... they’re saying ‘Yeah, that was then, this is now.’ ”

The Telegraph has appealed FEMA’s decision to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of General Counsel, and that appeal is pending. So far, FEMA has only released grant totals broken down by ZIP codes.

But the 11th Circuit’s decision in the Florida case specifically states that ZIP code information is not enough. That’s particularly true when tornado damage is at issue, since tornados “routinely destroy one home while leaving the home next to it intact,” the court noted. The court also noted that FEMA itself had argued that grant decisions had to be made on a claim-by-claim basis, not simply by looking at ZIP codes with heavy storm damage.

“If it would not constitute good stewardship of taxpayer dollars simply to make decisions about disaster aid based on ZIP code, then neither can ZIP codes be seen as an altogether accurate or complete way for the public to evaluate FEMA’s distribution of aid,” the court determined.

The ZIP code totals FEMA provided show that 1,002 applicants received grants totaling about $2.46 million. Much of that was given out in Middle Georgia, though people in other parts of the state affected by the storms also received funding.

More than half the recipients were in ZIP codes 31204 and 31206. Those include much of west Bibb County and the Eisenhower Parkway, Bloomfield and Rocky Creek Road areas, where most of the worst tornado damage occurred.

The agency gives out hundreds of millions of dollars each year through this grant program. In fiscal 2009, it distributed about $300 million in such grants, Carroll said.

The Small Business Administration also was active in the midstate after the storms, lending federal money to businesses to help them recover. At The Telegraph’s request, the SBA released a full database of names and addresses for the 109 people and entities that received loans, which total nearly $2.8 million.

That means the names of people who must repay disaster assistance funds are a matter of public record, but the names of those who get FEMA grants, which are not repayable, are not.

The largest loan totaled $295,000 and went to a man in Darien, on the Georgia coast. The second largest, for $206,200, went to a company in Macon. The smallest loan was $900, to a woman in Carrollton.

It took the SBA less than a month to process The Telegraph’s request for this information. It took FEMA nearly 13 months to reject The Telegraph’s request, and the agency’s formal response last month came after repeated follow-up calls and e-mails from The Telegraph over the course of the past year.

The Telegraph contacted several members of Congress to comment on this story, and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he couldn’t “think of a real reason” that privacy concerns would trump the need for transparency.

“Transparency is always, in terms of handling government dollars, the best thing to do,” Isakson said.

Asked for his broader thoughts about FEMA, Isakson said he had a very positive experience with the agency during the more recent spate of flooding in Georgia.

“Post Katrina, I think FEMA is the most improved agency I’ve seen in federal government,” Isakson said. “I have very positive feelings lately.”

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.