Attempts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to get back the funds that it states were mistakenly distributed to wildfire victims in 2007 have drawn criticism from San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
In a letter of complaint to W. Craig Fugate, FEMA’s administrator in Washington D.C., Jacob calls the attempt “callous.”
“This region has suffered enough,” Jacob wrote as part of her request for FEMA to reconsider.
FEMA is working to recoup more than a half billion dollars in grants that it has determined were distributed by mistake to thousands of flood and fire victims around the country, going back to Hurricane Katrina. According to news reports, the agency admits it issued 160,000 grants by mistake, “due to human or other error.” Some payments went to people who had some insurance for their property; other recipients had no insurance.
At least one woman, in Chicago, was told by the agency that if she didn't pay up, she’d be taken to collections, according to a report by Channel 7 TV, an ABC affiliate in Chicago. In a thread of comments on the FEMA website, one person reports that his elderly mother was told that if she didn’t pay the money back, it would be taken out of her Social Security payments. Although there is an appeal process, the writer states that his mother’s appeal was denied.
FEMA contacted Don and Veronica Lytle, survivors of the deadly Harris Fire in southeast San Diego County, for reimbursement of $1,647.43 they incurred to repair their roof and clear their home and property of ash, according to Jacob’s letter. The actual cost of repairs “was reportedly much greater,” Jacob states.
“Unless FEMA is pursuing a matter of fraud, I am deeply troubled by this event,” Jacob wrote. “First, FEMA’s recoupment efforts four years after the 2007 fires call into question the agency’s ability to adequately perform its core responsibilities to victims during and after disasters. Second, based on information provided to me regarding San Diego victims, the reimbursement burden seems ill-defined, unreasonable and forces the victims to relive the disaster based on FEMA's own mistakes.”
FEMA reports that the reason the recoupment requests have taken so long is that their hands were tied in 2007 due to a lawsuit.
However, Jacob wrote, “It is my strong belief that people who lived through the harrowing firestorm of 2007 will be distressed to learn that FEMA is trying to recover 100 percent of the assistance provided to Mr. and Mrs. Lytle.”
A spokesperson for Jacob said the supervisor is unaware of any other residents of District 2 who have been asked to pay back money. The district includes Ramona, where the devastating Witch Creek Fire occurred in 2007.
Jacob states that she finds it particularly offensive that if any mistake was made, it was made by FEMA. She has asked FEMA to provide her with the standards the agency used to determine that the Lytles “are no longer fire victims,” plus the number of 2003 and 2007 fire victims who have been asked to return FEMA disbursements and how much money has been collected or is still sought.
The supervisor states: “This is yet another example of FEMA eroding the public's trust.”
FEMA gave the following answer on its website to someone who asked, “Why is FEMA sending letters to some disaster applicants saying that they owe the Federal government money?”
“After disasters during which disaster applicants receive federal assistance from the government, a small percentage of those disaster applicants may receive payments improperly, whether because of human error or other problems. Federal laws, including the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 and the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act of 2010, require that federal agencies take actions to identify and recover any improper payments. This process is an important part of our obligation and commitment to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars and to guarantee proper safeguards are in place to ensure that federal dollars are correctly spent.”