Thousands in Florida Asked to Repay FEMA

FEMA is trying to collect $27 million it says it paid by mistake to 6,500 people in Florida in hurricane relief for damage last year. FEMA says the money was paid by mistake, not in response to fraudulent claims submitted by some Florida residents who weren't even in a hurricane zone. Amounts range from $5 to $50,000. Amy Tardif of member station WGCU reports.

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In Florida, thousands of people are being asked to give back money they received from FEMA. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been under fire for giving out too much money in hurricane aid last year. So FEMA is going over its books and telling some people they received aid by mistake. Amy Tardif of member station WGCU in Ft. Myers reports.

AMY TARDIF reporting:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says Sandra Witz owes it nearly $800. It's money Witz thought she received to help pay for the $10,000 in damage Hurricane Charley did to her house last year.

Ms. SANDRA WITZ: It's frustrating. I don't know what I feel towards the government. I'm just very disappointed in our system. I would have never pursued if I'd have known that this was coming.

TARDIF: Witz is a single mom with a son and two dogs who lives modestly in Punta Gorda, Florida. When the storm raged through her neighborhood last year, it ravaged her 56-year-old periwinkle-blue-colored house. Witz is distraught as she studies the damage she's been trying to repair for a year.

Ms. WITZ: My windows here--none of them will close properly. This one's actually missing the actual windowpane. And my poor garage--it's just--it's on its last leg. We don't use it for anything except for a little bit of storage; it's pretty much off its foundation.

TARDIF: Because the home sits across a narrow street from a main river, her insurance deductible is high. The company awarded her only $4,500. She needed more, and that's why she went to FEMA.

Ms. WITZ: I had an inspector come out. I told her everything. FEMA sent me a check for just slightly over $800. They did not state why they were sending me the funds.

TARDIF: Yet less than a year later, Witz got a letter from FEMA demanding nearly all of it back. Because she has private insurance, it said, she got the money in error.

Ms. WITZ: I sent a letter to FEMA appealing again. I sent them copies of what my insurance covered--items that were not included. Got another denial letter from FEMA. `I'm sorry. We can't cover you.'

TARDIF: A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Ft. Myers News-Press found more than 6,500 people owe FEMA more than $27 million from the 2004 hurricane season. That's because in a disaster, the agency is most concerned with helping people deal with the immediate emergency, says FEMA spokeswoman Nicole Andrews.

Ms. NICOLE ANDREWS (FEMA): Obviously, our mission is to get into an area quickly after a disaster occurs and help basic needs first--getting them generators or food or water or what have you, to make sure that life-saving and life-sustaining capacities move forward as quickly as possible.

TARDIF: But in the rush to help, mistakes happen. After the initial cleanup, FEMA reviews its actions. For example, Andrews says, the agency looks for duplicate payments on items covered by insurance or people who sought aid for a second home.

Ms. ANDREWS: There are a couple of different checks that check on whether or not the aid was distributed appropriately. At that point, we issue letters that suggest that the money that you've received is the taxpayers' dollars and for said reason you're not eligible to receive it and we need it back.

TARDIF: Andrews says the request for payback happens after every disaster. In Florida, one person owes more than $50,000. Sixty-three people owe $20,000 each. One even owes $5. FEMA wants back less than 1 percent of the money paid to hurricane victims in the Sunshine State last year. But for victims like Sandra Witz, that small amount is too much. The executive secretary has poured another 5,000 out of pocket into repairs. She laments she's still not finished and she stares up at her incomplete roof.

Ms. WITZ: I've actually borrowed from my 401(k) so that I can complete the repairs just so that I don't have any more critters living in my house than necessary.

TARDIF: Witz' bill with FEMA is accruing interest since she couldn't pay it back in one lump. She plans to let the agency take the money out of her tax return next year, and she wishes FEMA would train its employees better so they wouldn't make these kinds of mistakes. For NPR News, I'm Amy Tardif in Ft. Myers, Florida.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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