Investigation shows FEMA spent millions on puppet shows, bingo, yoga

By Sally Kestin
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Oct. 09, 2006

At the Pinitos Learning Center in Boca Raton, disaster workers dressed as "Windy Biggie" and "Sunny" teach 30 preschoolers a song about how the wind is good, even during a hurricane.

"Windy Biggie is our friend.

"Windy Biggie is strong wind.

"She turns, turns, turns, turns around.

"She's knocking things to the ground."

This is FEMA tax money at work. It's also paying for Hurricane Bingo, puppet shows, "salsa for seniors," and yoga on the beach.

Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded Florida $22.6 million for "crisis counseling" for victims of hurricanes Wilma and Katrina.

Florida's program, called Project H.O.P.E. -- Helping Our People in Emergencies -- is still in operation with about 450 workers across the state who spend much of their time leading games and performing shows for groups of residents -- regardless of whether they're in crisis or even experienced the storms, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has found.

The program, funded by FEMA but run by Florida's Department of Children & Families, is supposed to identify victims and help them recover from the "psychological aftermath" of the storms by providing emotional support and referrals for food, clothes and services.

But Project H.O.P.E. officials say they've had trouble locating victims because FEMA refuses to provide names or addresses of those who have sought disaster aid, citing confidentiality. Workers have searched for Wilma victims by driving around and looking for blue tarps on roofs.

The Katrina team, whose mission is to help Gulf Coast evacuees who have moved to Florida, have scoured hotels and festivals, sometimes finding only one or two "survivors" a week.

The job is stressful, Project H.O.P.E. officials say. Counselors regularly attend "stress management" sessions that have included collecting shells on the beach, "silly string and art therapy," and "the toilet paper game."

"This fun game has the team throwing toilet paper in an orderly fashion while additional rolls are constantly introduced," says a Project H.O.P.E. report.

In response to inquiries from the Sun-Sentinel, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., sent an e-mail to FEMA on Thursday, asking for a review of the program.

"The way some of the money reportedly is being used raises some red flags with me," said Nelson, who has criticized FEMA in the past for wasteful spending.

Doris O'Neal was a Project H.O.P.E. Wilma counselor in Palm Beach County from December through July, when she left because of illness.

"I think it's a waste of taxpayers' money," she told the Sun-Sentinel. "I mean, puppet shows? What is that doing? I felt guilty a lot of days going to work and earning a paycheck."

Project H.O.P.E. officials say they've helped thousands of Floridians suffering traumatic effects from the storms.

"Project H.O.P.E. gave them hope and guidance when they were living in despair," said Jennifer Beckman, project manager in Palm Beach County. "We are very proud of the services we offer and deliver."

FEMA relies on the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, a division of another federal agency, to evaluate the crisis counseling programs.

"They've told us they approve it, and it's a success," FEMA spokesman Josh Wilson said of Project H.O.P.E. "We're proud of it."

H.O.P.E. guidelines

After last year's hurricanes, FEMA approved applications from 28 states and the District of Columbia for crisis counseling grants totaling $109 million.

The grants have been in existence for 32 years, passed by Congress as part of a disaster relief law. Yet neither the federal government nor the state tracks the program to see whether it's effective. SAMHSA currently is conducting an evaluation, but the results are not complete.

"We continue to think about ways and work with people who are expert ... to determine if the strategies are effective or not," said Linda Ligenza, SAMHSA's project officer who oversees the Florida grants.

Federal law says the grants are for "professional counseling services" for people with "mental health problems caused or aggravated" by a major disaster.

But program guidelines developed by SAMHSA allow states to hire crisis counselors who are not mental health professionals. They also allow the grants to be used not just for counseling but education and outreach. SAMHSA considers puppet shows and games an appropriate use of the grants.

"We know certainly that it's not helpful to stand up in front of a group, for instance, and talk about reactions," Ligenza said. "It's much more advantageous, certainly in working with children, in working with elderly, to use some kind of engagement strategy like puppets or bingo to really engage people in a less threatening, fun, acceptable manner."

SAMHSA and DCF officials acknowledged that they do not know whether anyone who attends the shows and presentations is actually suffering any trauma from the storms. Many people receiving Project H.O.P.E. services told the newspaper that they have no hurricane-related distress.

"It was another storm for me," Keith Phaiah said of Wilma, which struck South Florida on Oct. 24, 2005. "I don't have any mental health problems because of the hurricane."

Phaiah, 31, was among a group of homeless people at the Broward Outreach Center in Hollywood who attended a "relationship principles" class taught by two Project H.O.P.E. workers in August.

"We're going to talk about relationships, about healthy relationships," crisis counselor Danielle Guerin told the group. "I'm going to ask everyone to give their names and one thing they're happy about."

"I'm happy I missed Wilma," replied one shelter resident, who said he had just arrived in Florida.

The preschoolers at Pinitos Learning Center could not even name the hurricane that the Wilma Project H.O.P.E. team came to discuss.

"Tornado!" shouted one boy.

"Windy Biggie" and "Sunny" told the toddlers a story about two children in a hurricane -- shopping for supplies with their parents and riding out the storm in a safe room. They sang the "Windy Biggie Song" nine times.

Joel Kimmel, a Coral Springs psychologist who does crisis counseling, viewed tapes of Project H.O.P.E. presentations provided by the Sun-Sentinel.

"I'm lost as to what these people are trying to accomplish," he said. "I don't see how teaching these kids this song is helping them in any way. It's very confusing and may even be damaging."

Charles Figley, a psychologist and director of the Traumatology Institute at Florida State University, said federal officials should be spending the grant money on mental health professionals to counsel actual victims of the disaster. Instead, "they guide the state into hiring these folks and having these bogus and untested programs that potentially do more harm than good."

For some, especially children, "forcing them to focus on frightening memories" from the storm can be overwhelming, Figley said.

`Heroes of the Storm'

Since 2004, Florida has received $46.8 million for crisis counseling for six hurricanes. The grant for Hurricane Charley, which ravaged the west coast in August 2004, paid for almost 700 performances of a puppet show called "Heroes of the Storm," a DCF report says.

With each grant, teams spend days creating scripts, rehearsing, and making costumes and props.

"After looking through hundreds of fabrics, team members finally selected one that has a pattern that looks like swirls and that has a very ethereal bluish background, which is reminiscent of wind," says a report on the preparations for the Pirate Pedro's play in Palm Beach County.

Other Project H.O.P.E. creations have included "yoga relaxation on the beach," the Un-electric Cooking Show with Chef Sunshine, and a workshop called "Planting for Inner Peace."

"Get your green thumb on to see and feel real growth from the care and nurturing of plants."

Such presentations, Project H.O.P.E. officials say, encourage people to talk about their feelings from the storm and reduce their anxiety so they'll be less stressed the next time a hurricane hits.

Several people who attended Project H.O.P.E. presentations told the Sun-Sentinel they found the shows entertaining but not particularly informative.

At the Rustic Retreat Retirement Home in Boynton Beach, Project H.O.P.E. played Hurricane Bingo with 15 residents in July.

Crisis counselor Warren Citron held up pictures of a chain saw, water, peanut butter and soap. "You want to keep up with your personal hygiene so you're not offending your neighbors, friends or family," he said, displaying a drawing of deodorant.

Some residents were too impaired to identify the items or place the chips on their cards when they had a match. Three Project H.O.P.E. counselors stood at the tables to help and shouted "Bingo" when residents were unaware they had won.

"I don't [think] I learned anything much, but it didn't hurt," said resident Lawrence Urgelles, 85. "It was an interesting experience having all these people come in for bingo. Usually I'm watching one woman work the bingo machine."

At places like Rustic Retreat, the elderly residents "do not need to worry about getting ready with hurricane supplies" because staff take care of their needs, one report acknowledged. Yet Project H.O.P.E. has played Hurricane Bingo at senior centers throughout South Florida.

George Woodley, director of substance abuse and mental health for DCF in Palm Beach County, defended the bingo games. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, he said, staff abandoned residents of some senior centers. "So if the people are prepared, at least they can take care of themselves."

Counselors' roles

Besides community presentations, Project H.O.P.E. conducts individual and group "crisis counseling." In the initial weeks after a disaster, counselors go to hurricane shelters, disaster recovery centers and hard-hit neighborhoods.

They inform people about disaster assistance and, through referrals to other agencies, help them get food, clothes, bus passes and jobs. The goal of the counseling is to provide emotional support to help victims return "to a pre-disaster functioning," said Suzette Fleischmann, project manager in Broward County.

Program reports describe some of the counseling sessions:

Project H.O.P.E. assisted one man "by helping him call his insurance company to check on the status of his claim" and teaching him "how to operate his new cell phone."

Another couple were under so much stress from the 2004 hurricanes that "they felt compelled to get legally married. ... The counselor referred them to the courthouse and also referred them to a notary public."

Project H.O.P.E. helped one victim who was depressed and suicidal with counseling and referrals for food stamps and disability benefits. "The survivor referred to Project H.O.P.E. as an `angel sent from heaven.'"

Kimmel, the psychologist, said the counselors succeeded in getting people services "but in terms of emotional improvement, there's no measure of that."

FSU's Figley said the crisis counselors appear to be "in way over their head."

"There could be people suffering from psychosis, various types of anxiety disorders," Figley said. "Someone who is not trained in diagnosis would never be able to tell."

Counselors are supposed to refer anyone showing signs of psychiatric problems to mental health agencies. Project H.O.P.E. also offers a 24-hour crisis hotline, but it has been fraught with problems, records show.

Counselors in Broward tested the number in April and "found that they answer the phone as a `suicide hotline,'" says a DCF report. "Furthermore, they never heard of Project H.O.P.E., but admitted to receiving calls for Project H.O.P.E., not knowing where to direct the calls."

Christina Locke was a Wilma crisis counselor in Okeechobee County from December through March. After passing out hundreds of brochures with the hotline number, Locke and another counselor decided to call.

"The lady didn't know what Project H.O.P.E. was," Locke said. "Then she said there wasn't an office in Okeechobee. I was calling from the office in Okeechobee."

Locke, 25, had worked at a domestic violence shelter and said she was the only counselor on her team of five with a bachelor's degree.

The job description says crisis counselors "may have a bachelor's degree, or less, in a specialty related to counseling," adding that they should also "possess good judgment and common sense." They are paid $18 an hour.

Locke said she spent her first weeks at Project H.O.P.E. canvassing neighborhoods, "which is ride around looking for damaged houses and ask people if they need crisis counseling, which obviously they didn't four months later."

"People weren't like freaking out about it because it wasn't that bad of a hurricane," said Locke, who is now a graduate student at the University of Florida.

Locke's team did not have enough to do, and members were encouraged by Project H.O.P.E. managers to perform puppet shows and visit day care centers and nursing homes, she said.

"The impression I got was they got the money so they had to spend it," Locke said.

She said she was instructed to concentrate on people living in FEMA trailers because their homes had been badly damaged. But FEMA officials refused to say where the trailers were because of privacy concerns.

"We got stalled on that," Locke said. "It's a small town, but we're not psychic."

About 6,000 Katrina evacuees have registered for FEMA aid with South Florida addresses, but the federal government won't say who or where they are. As of early August, Project H.O.P.E. had located about 250 families, said Stan Leconte, community liaison for the South Florida Katrina team.

Federal law protecting individuals' privacy precludes FEMA from sharing the identities of disaster victims, said spokesman Wilson. He said FEMA tries to "get the word out" about crisis counseling through the media.

`Self-care' activities

The Wilma and Katrina grants are scheduled to end Dec. 14.

"People seem to feel everyone has moved on," said Pat Kramer, a DCF mental health administrator in Broward County. "We know they haven't."

Project H.O.P.E. officials say they are still working with many people in need -- those left homeless because of Wilma and seniors living in mold-infested homes.

"It becomes very stressful," said Broward's Fleischmann. "You can get one hard case and work with it for two straight weeks."

To alleviate the stress, Project H.O.P.E. conducts "self-care" activities for team members that have included dancing on the beach, collecting shells and engaging in "water pistol battles." They've enjoyed "a day at the theatre," free massages and a hurricane recipe challenge, Project H.O.P.E. reports say.

The South Florida Katrina team organized a picnic in April at Snyder Park in Fort Lauderdale that "was fun when staff and survivors were able to interact, play games and enjoy activities," says one report. Three days later, Project H.O.P.E. managers treated 29 team members to lunch at Benihana "to alleviate stress after the team had worked so diligently on the Katrina Picnic."

FSU's Figley said the crisis counseling program is well-intentioned but needs to be overhauled "because there's no evidence to show that it works."

"People go to restaurants and rate it as zero to five stars," he said. "I would give this half a star."

Sally Kestin can be reached at [email protected] or 954-356-4510.

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