In between are privately contracted damage inspectors with little incentive to safeguard the public purse.
Everyone benefits, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigation found, except taxpayers footing the bill.
In the name of helping disaster victims, FEMA over five years awarded at least $330 million in areas with little or no damage, the newspaper found. While aid has legitimately flowed to thousands of people who lost their homes or belongings to fires, floods and hurricanes, thousands more have abused the system.
"It's an absolute abomination," said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Jupiter. "Whether intentional corruption or mismanagement ... it seems like FEMA is just a money pit.''
Outrage over $31 million to residents of Miami-Dade County last year for a hurricane that missed the county called national attention to fraud and waste in FEMA assistance. But the problem has evolved over years in cities across the country, the newspaper found.
It all starts with the federal disaster declaration, the first step to start the money flowing -- a process heavily influenced by politics.
Once disaster strikes, however small, politicians from mayors to governors to members of Congress pressure FEMA for a declaration and then boast about bringing money home.
By law, federal aid is meant for disasters that overwhelm state and local governments. Officials are supposed to prove a need for help through "damage assessments," the backbone of formal requests from governors to the president.
But the Sun-Sentinel found those assessments are not always done. Even when they are, they're sometimes not an accurate reflection of reality.
In New Hanover County, N.C., several residents whose names appear on assessments used to support disaster declarations for Hurricane Isabel in 2003 told the newspaper they suffered no damage to their homes.
In Ohio's Summit County, Emergency Management Coordinator Annette Petranic said her office has been pressured by the governor's staff and members of Congress to "try again" when initial counts failed to turn up enough damage for a declaration.
"We get asked to take a second look at things ... for political reasons," Petranic said. "Elected officials really want to get the disaster declared."
Politicians then tout their role in getting the money.
"This summer, Gov. [Jim] Doyle was successful in obtaining federal disaster aid for storm victims and local communities in 44 Wisconsin counties,'' a December 2004 state news release said. "This was the greatest number of declared counties in one summer since 1993.''
Russell Sobel, a West Virginia University professor, has researched how closely disasters and politics are intertwined.
"This is really the game of politics," he said.
Sobel co-authored a 2003 study that found states politically important to a president have higher rates of disaster declaration. Last year in Florida, President Bush declared Miami-Dade and other counties a disaster for Hurricane Frances before the storm had passed through the state. That decision eventually led to almost 13,000 Miami-Dade residents collecting money though they never experienced a hurricane.