Florida hurricane and oil spill fraud: Crooks clean up after disasters.

How to clean up (financially) after a disaster.

Beachgoers walk past a bottle coated with oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Pensacola Beach, Florida
Beachgoers walk past a bottle coated with oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Pensacola Beach, Fla., on June 4, 2010.

Photo by Lee Celano/Reuters

Every year it was the same thing. On June 1, my mom tucked a fresh hurricane tracking map behind the portable radio in the kitchen. For the next six months, whenever the radio blared an alert, she’d pull out her map and chart the movement of every storm that might roll up through the Gulf of Mexico like a bowling ball to demolish our green cinderblock house.

Were there a couple of dust specks swirling around each other off the coast of Mauritania? She’d note it on the map. Did a Category 2 sputter out over the Yucatan? She’d track it till it was gone.

By Nov. 30 her map was covered with dashes and jots, but we were still safe. Growing up, I became convinced her mapping the storms is what kept disaster away from our door.

When you live in Florida, you’re always living on the edge of disaster. Hurricanes swirl in and wash away buildings and beaches. Sinkholes pop open and swallow cars, roads, pools, houses, and the occasional person. Funnel clouds sprout up and suck in everything in their path. As a reporter here in Florida, I’ve covered all kinds of disasters—floods, wildfires, the Legislature, you name it.

One thing I’ve learned is that what the rest of the country might see as a disaster, a lot of people in Florida see as an opportunity. After Hurricane Andrew flattened Homestead in 1992, it took less than a day before the first grinning vendors appeared along the highway selling T-shirts that said, “I Survived Hurricane Andrew.” (Yeah, I bought one.)

The big money, though, is not in T-shirts.

In 2004, four hurricanes clobbered Florida. One of them, Hurricane Frances, slammed into the state on Labor Day. It made landfall near Stuart, on the state’s Atlantic coast, then juked west across the Peninsula, skipped across the Gulf, and made a second landfall in the Panhandle.

At no point did Frances come within 100 miles of Miami-Dade County. Yet an investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid $31 million to people who filed claims there. People in Miami-Dade got money for new furniture, clothes, TVs, microwaves, refrigerators. They got checks for new cars and dental bills. The gulli-bulls at FEMA even paid for funerals, even though not one single death there was attributed to Frances. 

The most recent disaster to hit Florida was the 2010 oil spill. The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 crew members, and began spewing oil from the underwater wellhead. Gobs of gooey oil took more than a month to begin washing ashore on Florida’s beaches. By the time BP stopped the flow in late July 2010, oil had tainted the sugar-white sands of eight Panhandle counties.

Since then, counties and cities all over the state have filed million-dollar claims on BP’s $20 billion compensation fund, arguing that so many tourists canceled trips during those few months that it killed their whole season. Individual claimants have come from beyond where the oil landed, too. In Pinellas County, which saw not a single drop of oil, attorney billboards dot the highways urging people to file claims and promising: “You Too Can Clean Up After the Oil Spill.”

But it doesn’t pay to get too greedy. That attracts attention. A businessman from Miami-Dade County—on the opposite coast from where the oil landed—filed claims against BP totaling $15 million. Many of them were on behalf of 700 or so low-wage workers who paid him $300 each as a “processing fee,” according to prosecutors. He was convicted of fraud in April and faces up to 700 years in prison.

The scams perpetrated after the hurricane and oil spill really amount to peanuts, though, compared to the biggest con of all. Look at a map of the state. Florida has more than 1,260 miles of coastline—more coastline than any other state in the continental United States. Given our vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding, where’s the most dangerous place to live? The coast. Yet where do most of us live? The coast. And where’s the one place you can get federally subsidized flood insurance? The coast. (And don’t even mention the effect of rising sea level due to climate change—which Florida’s current governor says does not exist.)

Before leaving this topic, let me say one more thing about my mom’s hurricane fixation. In 2004, the same year that four hurricanes hit, her darkest nightmare came true at last. She charted the path of Hurricane Ivan right up through the Gulf and down her street.

On the day before the storm was due to make landfall, my dad, in his 70s, went out and boarded up all the windows. I called to see if they would be evacuating, and the answer was no. They planned to ride the storm out in their own home. When Ivan crashed ashore, my mom stayed up all night crying and praying as she listened to the howling wind. My dad, though, slept through it all. They came through the storm all right, but Mom was so mad I don’t think she spoke to Dad for a week.