Congress May Help Hurricane Victims Who Had to Repay Aid

Aerial photo by Daryl Wade shows a sprinkling of fading tarp roofs in Estate Whim two years after the passage of Hurricane Maria. (Daryl Wade photo)
Aerial photo by Daryl Wade shows a sprinkling of fading tarp roofs in Estate Whim two years after the passage of Hurricane Maria. (Daryl Wade photo)

A bill is making its way through Congress to prevent clawbacks of Federal Emergency Management Agency direct cash aid given in error, if there is no allegation of fraud.

The legislation has a long way to go and it may or may not become law. People who suffered losses in recent disasters, from wildfires in California to the 2017 hurricanes in the Caribbean, have gotten direct federal financial assistance from FEMA that was issued in error, then been forced to repay money (“clawed back” by FEMA) although they may still be far from financially stable or whole.

FEMA has disbursed more than $88 million in individual assistance to Virgin Islanders, according to FEMA spokesperson Eric Adams. How much of that had to be returned is not public but there have not been widespread complaints that would suggest a significant amount. FEMA officials have confirmed some people in the U.S. Virgin Islands have had aid clawed back, but they would not say who, how many or how much money, citing privacy rules.

According to a press release from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the bill’s goal is to prevent “revictimization” of disaster victims by requiring FEMA to waive the debt of someone who has received FEMA assistance in cases where no fraud has been committed and when the agency later determines it mistakenly granted the assistance. The release says that under the current process, FEMA can come back weeks, months or even years later to seek repayment of funds it awarded victims, even when the agency made the initial error.

The bill was introduced by U.S. Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO), who is the Ranking Member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA), U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) and U.S. Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI).

“If FEMA makes an error, disaster survivors should not have the burden of proving that a debt should be waived,” Plaskett said in the committee’s press release. “This legislation to relieve survivors of this burden will be helpful to my constituents and may go a long way for residents of the Virgin Islands, who may not have the wherewithal to return funds,” she said.

The view is about all that remains of this home on St. Thomas’ Northside, post Hurricane Irma. (Kelsey Nowakowski photo)
The view is about all that remains of this home on St. Thomas’ north side, post Hurricane Irma. (Source photo by Kelsey Nowakowski)

The bill also directs FEMA to report to Congress the number of mistakes it makes in individual assistance award determinations and its efforts to avoid repeating the same types of mistakes in the future.

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee marked up the legislation on Feb. 26 and recommended it be considered by the full House of Representatives. If House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) follows that recommendation and the House votes to pass it, it will go to the Senate, where its prospects are unclear. The House is under Democratic Party control while the Senate is under Republican Party control, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is currently sitting on nearly 400 pieces of legislation passed by the House, refusing to allow them to be considered.

While the outcome is not certain, the fact it has bipartisan support may help if or when it gets to the Senate.

“This bill stops FEMA from revictimizing the victims of disasters,” Graves, a Republican sponsor of the bill, said in the committee’s release. “The Preventing Disaster Revictimization Act prevents FEMA from trying to claw back critical assistance that disaster victims, through no fault of their own, have been awarded and have already used in the difficult process of putting their lives back together. The amount an individual can receive from FEMA in these instances is relatively small in terms of the overall federal budget, but to my constituents in North Missouri and many others across the country, that assistance can be the difference between the road to recovery and the road to ruin. To try to take that money back from disaster victims, because of a mistake FEMA made, is simply unacceptable,” Graves said.

Neither local nor D.C.-based FEMA representatives would weigh in on the legislation, saying FEMA has a policy of not commenting on pending legislation.

A FEMA spokesperson confirmed “a group” of Virgin Islanders had money clawed back but would not say how many, how much or where.

According to FEMA, these V.I. residents were approved for permanent housing construction after having previously received Home Repair financial assistance. Those who applied for the construction help “signed a document indicating that they understood that they would have to return their Home Repair financial assistance,” an unnamed FEMA spokesperson said in a statement provided by Alex Bruner in the FEMA Headquarters Press Office. If they could not demonstrate the Home Repair money was spent on eligible home repairs, they had to return the repair money. If they did not pay it back, they “were placed in recoupment,” meaning FEMA took steps to recoup the money.

The FEMA spokesperson also said several laws actually require it to identify and recover improper payments.

“FEMA must recover disaster assistance when there is evidence of duplication of benefits, assistance provided in error, misuse of funds or fraud,” the spokesperson said.

Even if the law is not changed, according to FEMA, the Disaster Recovery Reform Act already authorizes FEMA to waive debts if it is FEMA’s error, the debtor has no fault, there is no sign of fraud and collecting the debt would be “against equity and good conscience.”

If the bill is enacted into law, instead of FEMA having the option to waive debts, it would be obligated to do so.

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