NEW YORK (Reuters) - A devastating storm like Sandy can bring out the crooks - and not just opportunistic looters and burglars.
Officials dealing with the destruction in the U.S. Northeast say one of their biggest headaches is debris-removal fraud committed by greedy contractors who inflate their share of the millions in cleanup funds doled out by federal agencies.
But new digital technology created by private companies and municipalities in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Irene is making it much easier to stop firms from overcharging by claiming they have trucked away more wreckage than they have.
The new software combats fraud and also streamlines the vexing municipal task of documenting every last dumpster of debris or broken tree branch to prove to Federal Emergency Management Agency auditors that the money was properly spent.
Ray Iovino learned his lesson after 2011’s Hurricane Irene, which caused nearly $16 billion in economic damage across eight northeastern U.S. states.
As assistant director of the bureau of equipment and inventory for Long Island’s Nassau County, Iovino remembered all too well the messy months of paperwork that consumed his office after Irene felled nearly 2,500 trees in his area.
“The first thing they asked for were the pictures of every tree that went down in the storm,” Iovino said, in reference to FEMA. County officials, unfamiliar with federal regulations, had simply written down the locations of the trees, which wasn’t good enough.
“FEMA said they’d have to go out and look at every single location,” Iovino said. “It was a nightmare.”
FEMA also “wanted to know which trucks trucked what debris where and when and how,” he said.
As Superstorm Sandy raced up the U.S. eastern seaboard in late October, Iovino began researching a more efficient system to document the massive damage he expected, and found DebrisTech, a Mississippi debris-removal company whose chief executive was himself a victim of fraud after Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast region in 2005.
At that time, DebrisTech CEO Brooks Wallace was a partner in a civil engineering firm that had won a $200 million contract to remove Katrina wreckage from six Mississippi counties. The firm was using a paper ticketing system to track the trucks hauling away debris, a standard industry practice.
It was a huge job and Wallace’s company sub-contracted some of the work out to other firms, including Florida-based J.A.K. DC & ER, whose owner saw an opportunity, according to federal prosecutors.
J.A.K. owner Allan Kitto peeled off the stickers Wallace’s firm had affixed to his trucks and sent the same trucks back to be stickered again, inflating the number of trucks he appeared to be using and the number of debris hauls he was making.
At night, Wallace said, Kitto would “sneak into my office at two or three in the morning and slide phony paper tickets into the stack of real tickets.” Each ticket represented a truck full of debris that Kitto’s trucks allegedly hauled away. By the time he was caught, Kitto had submitted more than $700,000 worth of fake paper tickets, according to federal prosecutors.
Wallace became aware of the scam and contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 2006, Kitto and two others were indicted on federal charges of conspiring to defraud the government. In 2007, Kitto was convicted and sentenced to 25 months in prison.
Wallace, an engineer, began thinking about how to avoid a repeat of that hurricane cleanup experience. He spent $60,000 developing custom software to digitally track debris trucks with barcode scanners, digital photos and global positioning systems. That data would then be wirelessly uploaded to a central database.
DebrisTech, one of a handful of private companies using the digital tracking software, leases out iPads loaded with its software to municipalities for $12 per device per day. Nassau County leased about 100 of DebrisTech’s 120 devices, Iovino said.
The software also maps the locations of downed or removed trees using GPS coordinates. Iovino has plotted the GPS coordinates of each of the county’s 2,641 downed trees - a figure Iovino expects to rise to 5,000 by the time the cleanup is finished - onto a digital map of Nassau in the county’s emergency operations center.
”It’s amazing what a difference this software has made,“ he said. ”Now when anything is picked up on Nassau County property, we know the size of the truck, the percentage the truck is full, we’ve got a picture of the debris in the truck, which transfer site it went to, and where it is right now.
“When FEMA comes back this time, I‘m going to hand them a CD with every imaginable piece of documentation on it. The amount of man hours that we’ve saved is incredible, plus the amount of man hours that FEMA would have to put in to go back and document all the downed trees and debris removal. It’s incredibly efficient.”
Industry experts expect technology like DebrisTech’s to have a profound effect on post-disaster cleanup.
”I’ve been in debris-removal projects all over the country - Florida, California, Texas, Virginia - huge hurricanes, wildfires, floods,‘’ said Russ Towndrow, a former Mississippi Emergency Management Agency official who has used the DebrisTech software. “This real time data is a game-changer,” he said.
A FEMA investigator involved in federal audits of cleanup funds concurred.
“Debris removal can be a sizeable percentage of overall FEMA funding, so the better shape the documentation is in, the more it will ease the entire process,” the investigator said.
Debris-removal fraud is widespread after major natural disasters, according to federal and state law enforcement officials.
“You can count on it every time,” said Kathleen Wylie, Deputy Director of the Justice Department’s National Center for Disaster Fraud. “It’s one of the first things we look for.”
Dishonest contractors will “do just about anything you could imagine - they’ll put water in trucks to weigh them down, they’ll put blocks underneath the debris to make the trucks look full. Or the guy at the gate will give a driver a new ticket for driving through with the same load.”
Digital debris-removal technology is also being tested by municipalities like New York City. Programmers working with the city’s Parks Department recently completed work on software to replace an arduous and time-consuming paper ticketing system, said Jeremy Barrick, the Parks Department’s deputy chief of forestry.
“We were using paper ticketing after Irene, and we sat down afterwards to talk about how we could track debris removal more efficiently,” Barrick said. It led to the development of proprietary software known among city officials as “Storm Mobile.”
The software interfaces with the city’s non-emergency 311 call center, which residents can use to report downed trees.
“Every time the city logs a service request for a downed tree removal, our inspectors can see it in virtually real time.”
After Irene, Barrick said, New York City logged 10,000 calls about downed trees, compared with 26,000 to date after Sandy.
”The Irene tree tracking took months,“ Barrick said. ”We had big spreadsheet parties on overnight shifts, where we’d gather all these faxed-in paper lists of downed trees, transpose them over to a written database, and then upload them into an electronic system.
“With the Storm Mobile app, within 20 days we had a pretty clear picture of every downed tree in New York City,” he said.
“With this electronic system,” Barrick said in reference to the lack of paperwork, “we’ve actually saved a lot of trees.”
Reporting by Chris Francescani; Additional reporting by Brendan McDermid; Editing by Martin Howell, Steve Orlofsky and Jim Loney