Thursday, December 08, 2005

Cash up in smoke: Clean-air aid went all over
Cash up in smoke: Clean-air aid went all over

This series was reported and written by
the Daily News Investigative Team:
and Assistant Managing Editor

Most of the FEMA millions used to help city residents buy clean air equipment to deal with the noxious residue of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was spent in neighborhoods far from Ground Zero, a Daily News computer analysis shows.

Satellite photos indicate that the horrific plume flew across the East River to downtown Brooklyn, thinning and rising as it continued on a southeasterly course toward Manhattan Beach, Breezy Point in Queens, then out to sea.

But people far from that route - in the Bronx, upper Manhattan, Queens, and on Staten Island - gobbled up big portions of the clean air goodies, supposedly to cleanse their homes of World Trade Center soot.

In Washington Heights, more than 6% of households in four zip codes had claims approved by FEMA and the state Department of Labor, which administered the program.

Within that uptown area ­- where the plume obviously never neared - 4,652 homes were approved to collect $5.3 million in equipment.

The FEMA data, obtained by The News under the federal Freedom of Information Act, doesn't show whether people picked up their government checks after they were approved, though other records suggest that nearly all did.

Using the FEMA data, The News was able to combine zip codes with census data and identify neighborhoods where the highest percentage of households were approved to get free air conditioners, air purifiers, air filters and vacuum cleaners.

Residents of lower Manhattan, for example, collected 14% of the $131 million FEMA says was paid out in the air program.

But the rest of the results documented how participation did not follow the flight of the unhealthy ash from Ground Zero.

No dust floated over central Queens, but residents there scored thousands of government-financed appliances.

In Flushing, Elmhurst, Hillcrest, and Rego Park, 5,211 households were approved to receive $6.3 million.

In Brooklyn, the spending pattern suggests the plume somehow went around the northern neighborhoods of Park Slope, Cobble Hill and downtown on its way south to Borough Park, Sunset Park, Bensonhurst and Coney Island.

Only 1% to 3% of households in those northern Brooklyn neighborhoods were approved for reimbursements, but residents farther south were much more likely to bring home federally financed electronics.

In Borough Park, 18% of households were given approval. In one zip code alone - 11219 - 4,711 homes were okayed to collect $6.3 million.

The percentages of households in neighboring zip codes that claimed to be drowning in dirty Ground Zero particles were staggering: 16% in New Utrecht; 13% in Sunset Park; 12% in Bath Beach, and 11% in Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach, and Ocean Parkway.

And in a zip code comprised mostly of Starrett City, some 8 miles from Ground Zero - and again well off the plume's path - one-in-10 households were cleared to receive a FEMA-backed check, representing 614 residents for grants totalling $633,495.

Before officials limited the program, in June 2002, to the city's five boroughs, checks totaling $206,736 were approved for 188 residents outside city limits, upstate and on Long Island. The non-city zip code with the most recipients was in Glen Oaks, L.I., where 53 people were cleared to get $52,461. Close behind was the Orange County town of Monroe, where 26 were approved for $36,634, and the Rockland County town of Monsey, where 27 applications were approved for $31,819.

There are other oddities in FEMA records that suggest fraud by applicants, absurdly poor recordkeeping or applicants who had listed work addresses.

In 10020, made up exclusively of Rockefeller Plaza, six people were approved for $7,199 worth of air devices. The Census Bureau says there's only one residence in the entire zip code.

Zip codes where the 2000 Census found no dwelling units also show up as receiving free equipment. A lower Manhattan zip code that the Postal Service lists as devoted exclusively to American Express' offices at the World Financial Center had 22 residents approved to receive $17,463. FEMA also reported four approved claims totaling $4,400 within a special zip code that, according to the Postal Service, receives only "contest mail."

Even stranger, FEMA records show that 21 clean air claims totaling $22,795 were approved in a special zip code assigned to state government offices at the Trade Center.

Finally, FEMA records show that within the zip code comprised exclusively of the Trade Center - which had no residences before the attacks - 1,759 people were approved to receive $1.9 million under the program.

State Labor Department spokesman Robert Lillpopp did not return calls seeking comment on The News' zip-code analysis.