UPDATE 1-Fighting Sandy debris-removal crooks: There's an app for that

NEW YORK, Nov 23 (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.

FRAUD VICTIM

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.

BARCODE SCANNERS

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.

FRAUD PREVALENT

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."

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