FEMA Wants Money Back from Katrina Victims

By: Glenn Minnis

More than six years after Hurricane Katrina ripped through lives and The Gulf region in ways that have yet to be fully healed or even comprehended, the notoriously dysfunctional Federal Emergency Management Agency is now adding insult to injury for many by seeking to recoup nearly $400 million in relief funding paid out to hard hit and distressed victims of the storm, maintaining that clerical or employee errors may have resulted in some victims marginally receiving more compensation than what may now be allocated.

Just last week – and with a new hurricane season perilously looming – the agency began mailing out more than 83,000 debt notices to Katrina and other 2005 storm victims demanding that they reimburse the government an average of $4,622 each.

One of those receiving one of the letters was David Bellinger, a 63-year-old legally blind former New Orleans resident who has since moved to Atlanta after his home was leveled by the storm.

“I nearly had a stroke,” Bellinger told the Associated Press of his $3,200 bill, which he now has 30 days to pay. “I’m totally blind; I subsist entirely on a Social Security disability check. If I have to pay this money back, it would pretty much wipe out all the savings I have.”

“Disaster victims shouldn’t be punished because FEMA is dysfunctional,” said Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, rejecting a claim made by the agency that it is required by law to recover all improper payments, even if the recipient was not at fault. “Most of these families facing recoupment are honest survivors facing incredible challenges who used the funds for legitimate and urgent disaster-related needs.”

Landrieu recently introduced and sponsored a bill since signed into law by President Barack Obama that would allow FEMA to waive many of the debts now burdening the already afflicted. Yet to be determined is how many victims will be eligible to benefit from the new legislation.

All this comes on the heels of a recent census which found that of the nearly 30,000 victims forced to shuttle from home to home due to the wrath of Katrina, many of them are still lacking a permanent living arrangement. What’s more, of the thousands of one-time residents surveyed, four out of every five revealed they have had to evacuate residencies at least twice since 2005.

Luisa Mejia, 28, is yet another of the victims who has since relocated to Atlanta and now shockingly finds herself in receipt of one of the government’s aforementioned notices.

“We left with nothing but important papers and maybe two sets of clothes,” she said. “We were living with no money, living in a home with 40 people. I didn’t get the type of money that would make me rich from Katrina. For people who were honest like me, it’s crazy.”

As someone who has represented Katrina victims in a class-action suit against the government, Loyola University law professor Davida Finger has met countless citizens who fall into Mejia’s category.

“People used this money to survive,” she said. “We don’t want people to have to give back money that they simply needed for rent and food.”

Though quick to point out that hundreds have already been convicted of hurricane-related fraud, FEMA spokesperson Rachel Racusen admits that most of the cases now under review derive from mistakes made by agency employees.

“Under our current leadership, strong protections have been put in place to greatly reduce the error rate of improper …..

….. disaster payments,” said Racusen, adding that the agency has now slashed its error rate from involving such payments from 14.5 percent post Katrina to about 3 percent in 2009.

That comes as little solace to Paul Wegener, a 75-year-old lifetime New Orleans resident and Katrina survivor. Wegener lost his home in the storm and was awarded only a $30,000 grant to rebuild a home he claims cost him nearly $600,000 to refurbish. The mere thought of having to repay even a penny of that simply appalls him to no end.

“They’ll have to pry it from by dead hands if they try,” he told the AP.

Not surprisingly, census data also found that the black population in New Orleans has been severely decimated since Katrina came to shore. Of the 244,000 owner-occupied, metro area homes destroyed by the storm, 82 percent of them have been repaired. Yet since 2000, the number of African-American residents in those parts had fallen from 323,000 to only 206,870 in 2010.