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.”


Worth the sting: Cuba’s scorpion pain remedy

Farmer Pepe Casanas poses with a scorpion in Los Palacios, Cuba, December 5, 2018. Picture taken December 5, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 16 December 2018
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Worth the sting: Cuba’s scorpion pain remedy

  • In Cuba, where tens of thousands of patients have been treated with Vidatox, each vial costs under a dollar
  • The scorpions are caught in the wild as Labiofam workers believe their venom — which is not dangerous — is not as potent when raised in captivity

HAVANA: Once a month for the last decade, Pepe Casanas, a 78-year-old Cuban farmer, has hunted down a scorpion to sting himself with, vowing that the venom wards off his rheumatism pains.
His natural remedy is no longer seen as very unusual here.
Researchers in Cuba have found that the venom of the blue scorpion, whose scientific name is Rhopalurus junceus, endemic to the Caribbean island, appears to have anti-inflammatory and pain relief properties, and may be able to delay tumor growth in some cancer patients.
While some oncologists abroad say more research is needed to be able to properly back up such a claim, Cuban pharmaceutical firm Labiofam has been using scorpion venom since 2011 to manufacture the homeopathic medicine Vidatox.
The remedy has proven popular.
Labiofam Business Director Carlos Alberto Delgado told Reuters sales were climbing 10 percent annually. Vidatox already sells in around 15 countries worldwide and is currently in talks with China to sell the remedy there.
In Cuba, where tens of thousands of patients have been treated with Vidatox, each vial costs under a dollar. On the black market abroad it can cost hundred times that — retailers on Amazon.com are seen selling them for up to $140.
“I put the scorpion where I feel pain,” Casanas said while demonstrating his homemade pain relief with a scorpion that he found under a pile of debris on the patch of land he cultivates in Cuba’s western province of Pinar del Rio.
After squeezing it long enough, it stung him and he winced.
“It hurts for a while, but then it calms and goes and I don’t have any more pain,” he said.
Casanas, a leathery-skinned former tobacco farmer who now primarily grows beans for his own consumption, said he sometimes keeps a scorpion under his straw hat like a lucky charm.
It likes the shade and humidity, he says, so just curls up and sleeps.

FROM FARM TO LAB
In a Labiofam laboratory in the southern Cuban city of Cienfuegos, workers dressed in scrubs and hairnets tend to nearly 6,000 scorpions housed in plastic containers lined up on rows of metal racks.
Every few days they feed and water the arachnids that sit on a bed of small stones. Once a month, they apply an 18V electrical jolt to their tails using a handcrafted machine in order to trigger the release of a few drops of venom.
The venom is then diluted with distilled water and shaken vigorously, which homeopathic practitioners believe activates its “vital energy.”
The scorpions are caught in the wild as Labiofam workers believe their venom — which is not dangerous — is not as potent when raised in captivity.
After two years of exploitation in the “escorpionario,” they are released back into the wild.
Dr. Fabio Linares, the head of Labiofam’s homeopathic medicine laboratory who developed the medicine, said Vidatox stimulates the body’s natural defense mechanisms.
“After four to five years (of taking it), the doctor whose care I was in told me that my cancer hadn’t advanced,” said Cuban patient Jose Manuel Alvarez Acosta, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008.
Still, Labiofam recommends Vidatox as a supplemental treatment and says it should not replace conventional ones.