Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Help Me Howard: FEMA
When Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana. Some South Florida residents rushed in to help. The government was hiring people to help, but there is one little problem: some who did disaster work never got paid. They're asking Howard for help.
WSVN -- Meet Michael Puerto -- who you might call a jack of all trades.
Michael Puerto: "Bathroom, kitchens, baseboard, moldings. Basically everything."
But last year, after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, he decided they needed him more over there.
Michael Puerto: "And then you hear about the floods. And all the poeple over there in need. It just breaks your heart. I want to go up there and help."
That's when this flyer started popping up around South Florida offering high paying jobs to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
Michael Puerto: "They published it real good. They told us how much money we were going to make $600, $700, $1000 a day."
Jason Irizarry: "Not only were we helping people, but we were helping ourselves."
Jason decided to go with Michael and filled his truck with supplies.
Jason Irizarry: "I got the last savings I had, and I bought my canned food and my little tent, my air mattress, my wall unit A/C for the heat."
For three weeks both men worked hard, very hard.
Michael Puerto: "Basically, we were living in the woods. We went over there to live in the woods and work, basically 14-hour shifts a day."
Every day they laid down blue tarps and night they turned in paperwork showing what they had accomplished. They appeared to be doing very well.
Michael Puerto: "I get three or four houses a day and the square footage was incredible. I was making well over $800 a day."
The Army Corp of Engineers ran the Blue Roof Program for FEMA, who was paying an Alabama company to do the work.
But Jayson and Michael never saw the money.
Jason Irizarry: "I started seeing there was no coordination, there was nobody in control. Everybody was running around at three in the morning and two in the morning."
After nearly four weeks of work, the two men were owed more than $10,000 each.
Disgusted, they came home empty handed and tried for a year to get the government to pay them for the work they did.
The only thing they got from the ordeal was debt.
Michael Puerto: "I wasn't well off to take off over there. You understand? I maxed out my credit cards going over there. I just want to get paid, I want my money. I worked too hard. I think I earned it. It's just not fair that there's a contractor out there that has my hard earned money."
But unable to get it, they called Help Me Howard.
Howard Finkelstein: "In times of disasters, it's a little chaotic. The government rushes in, hires contractors who then finds people to do the work. FEMA has contracts with the general contractors and after they take over, FEMA has no responsibility. The workers have to go after the contractors."
But tracking down the company that owes the men is a bureaucratic nightmare.
The people that hired Michael and Jason told them they represented a Texas company that had the FEMA contract.
That was a lie.
The company told us they were not even involved in the FEMA project.
The person who hired Michael and Jason has disappeared.
So we contacted the Army Corps of Engineers which runs the Blue Roof program for FEMA.
They sent us this email saying: "We are not investigating this matter."
In other words, they paid for the installation of the tarps, and if Michael and Jason didn't get paid, they need to find the contractor who hired them.
Howard says that not the way for the government to respond.
Howard Finkelstein: "Legally, the government does not have to pay the men. But we found out there were workers from a dozen states affected by the scam. And if the federal government is not going to pay them, they should at least investigate and track down the contractors who ripped off all these disaster relief workers."
For Jason and Michael, it's frustrating. They sweated, did the hard work and got nothing, while the big wheels got rich.
Michael Puerto: "They got all those people over there. Contractors and big money, men with their brand new trucks and all the big trailers and everything, and I went out there with my little 1990 truck, and my little 1970 trailer, and I risked it all on the road, you know?"
Patrick Fraser: "The government may be trying to wash its hands of this, but that does not mean people who did not get paid are out of luck. Howard suggests they call their local congressmen, who happen to be running for re-election, and want to make potential voters happy. And those congressmen and women can get the government to do things you and I cannot."
A simple situation turning into a devastating disaster? Contact us, we aren't miracle workers, but if one solution doesn't work, we'll figure out a couple more.
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