FEMA asks some disaster victims to return money

A crest of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Tess Vigeland: The Federal Emergency Management Agency's mission is to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate hazards. As part of that mission, the agency gives out emergency money to victims of disasters.

This week, the San Diego Union Tribune reported that FEMA is now asking some of those victims to return part or all of their disaster payouts. It profiled San Diego residents Veronica and Donald Lytle, whose home was damaged in the Harris wildfire back in 2007. FEMA wants $1,600 back from them. And more than $22 million from other disaster victims across the country.

Christopher Cadelago visited with the Lytles and wrote the story for the Union Tribune.

Christopher Cadelago: This is a rural area and they are used to fires and were kinda preparing for the worst. And the fire came up right to their property line. It badly damaged the home, but a hole through the roof.

Vigeland: And was their home destroyed?

Cadelago: Their home was not totally destroyed but they couldn't live in it for three weeks, so a FEMA inspector could come. They couldn't clean anything, because it had to be in the condition that the fire left it.

Vigeland: What kind of monetary damage was done to the house?

Cadelago: The home suffered quite a bit of damage. The couple paid -- this is just for materials, because they did the construction on their own -- anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000. So the $1,600 they received from FEMA, they said, was just a drop in the bucket and now the fact that they have to pay it back kind of adds insult to injury, they say.

Vigeland: So what are they supposed to do? Are they supposed to make a check out to the federal government?

Cadelago: Yes, that's actually what the letter says, is just to pay the entire thing. They say they're going to appeal it. They have not done that yet, but they were able to fix some of the damages, but there's a lot of mud caked into the walls and the ground. They have not fully restored this home.

Vigeland: Still four years later?

Cadelago: Yes.

Vigeland: What does FEMA say about why the Lytles and other disaster victims should be paying this back? There aren't any allegations of fraud here, right?

Cadelago: No. FEMA has said that none of these cases involve fraud. They kind of derived from a few factors, including people on their end -- folks on FEMA's end -- misreading some of the guidelines and improperly approving some of these folks. And you know, people ask the question, "Why four years later?" Well, part of that reason is because there was this legal challenge and they could not recoup or did not try to recoup the money since about 2007. And now that they're doing it, a lot of people out there have said, "Why are coming so late?" Well, not to defend FEMA, but they don't really have a choice. It's the first opportunity to have to try to recoup this money.

Vigeland: So they're mandated by law to do this?

Cadelago: Yes, they are. And there's some federal legislation out there, which would allow FEMA to, in certain cases, not be mandated by law to seek this money.

Vigeland: Did you get any sense of why a victim of a natural disaster would not qualify for this kind of aid? I mean, what reason is given for the Lytles, for example for having to return $1,600 when they shelled out $15,000 to repair their home?

Cadelago: Some folks did not qualify because they received, according to FEMA, duplicate payments or were helped out by other organizations, and so now they're coming back. There's also issues with insurance, whether people were made whole and also received this money from FEMA

Vigeland: Alright. Christopher Cadelago is a reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune. Thank so much for your time.

Cadelago: Thank you.

Vigeland: Here is a link to his full FEMA refund story.

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