Fighting Sandy debris-removal crooks: There’s an app for that

Updated 26 November 2012
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Fighting Sandy debris-removal crooks: There’s an app for that

NEW YORK: A devastating storm like Sandy can bring out the crooks — and not just opportunistic looters and burglars.
Officials dealing with the destruction in the US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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.
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. Programrs 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.”


West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

Updated 20 June 2018
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West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

  • The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle.”
  • The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.

LONDON: London theatergoers used to spectating in comfort are in for a rude awakening after the authors of a play swapped the traditional plush velvet seating for wooden benches and covered the floor with soil to simulate the feel of a migrant camp.
The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle,” whose authors hope their play will stoke debate about migration.
“People often hold strong opinions about this subject because it doesn’t seem to have any immediate answer,” said Joe Murphy, 27, who co-wrote the play.
“Discussion is the only think that is going to get us forward ... and hopefully this play can provide some of that space for debate,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Co-author Joe Robertson said the pair had “tried to depict both the terrible conditions that existed in the Jungle camp, but also the hope that existed in that place.”
Up to 10,000 people seeking ways to reach Britain used to live in the giant slum before it was cleared by authorities in late 2016.
Immigration remains a major political issue across Europe, as well as in the United States, where the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the Mexican border has caused an international outcry.
Several European leaders including those of France, Germany, Italy and Austria are to hold talks on Sunday to explore how to stop people from moving around the European Union after claiming asylum in one of the Mediterranean states of arrival.
Murphy and Robertson, 28, based the script on their experience as volunteers in Calais, where they ran a temporary theater within the camp.
The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.
“There were 25 different nationalities of people all forced to live side by side often on top of each other and the phenomenal story about that place was people did make an effort to come together,” said Robertson.
Theatre-goers are invited to seat at the tables of the camp’s makeshift Afghan café, where the action unfolds.
“The closer you are to the audience the better the message is delivered,” said actor Ammar Hajj Ahmad, who plays one of the leading characters.
Ahmad, from Syria, is one of many actors from a refugee background featured in the play. Several asylum-seekers the authors met in Calais are also part of the cast.
“I am proud of this, I love telling stories ... about the many people who lived in Calais,” said cast-member Mohamed Sarrar, a musician from Sudan who arrived in Britain two years ago.
The play, which premiered at another London theater The Young Vic, last year, runs from July 5 to November.