In the past several of weeks, 179 Iowan applicants for FEMA funding were told they need to pay back their money. The total amount FEMA is trying to recoup is more than $800,000.
FEMA issued a total of $138 million in assistance for severe storms, tornadoes and flooding in May of 2008. Money was approved to more than 24,000 applicants. Of that, FEMA is trying to recoup more than $500,000 from 87 applicants.
FEMA issued more than $26 million in assistance from severe storms, tornadoes and flooding in July of last year. Money was approved to 8,600 applicants. Of that, FEMA is trying to recoup more than $250,000.
Less than one percent of applicants in Iowa are receiving letters.
In a different case that goes back a few years, Aplington-Parkersburg High School has been going back and forth with FEMA about returning close to $1 million of the $2 million allocated to the school.
FEMA says the school was approved for a temporary gymnasium but the school built a permanent gymnasium. FEMA says it is not asking for all of the money back.
"We are committed to serving disaster survivors and communities as effectively as possible, while being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars," said FEMA Spokeswoman Rachel Racusen. "FEMA, along with other federal agencies government-wide, has long been legally required by Congress to identify any cases in which federal assistance may have been improperly distributed and to recover those funds, even in cases of human error or mistake."
FEMA also released a statement. Below is a portion of that statement:
To be clear, FEMA has a separate process for how we handle any cases of potential fraud. If a case shows evidence of fraud, FEMA immediately refers the case to the Office of Inspector General to investigate, and – if found guilty – is handled by the Department of Justice. Currently none of the potential recoupment cases have been identified as fraud, but if we do uncover any as we continue our reviews of each case, it will be handled through this separate process.
As the letters state, recipients have several options once they receive these notices. They can file an appeal to challenge the debt, they can request a payment plan to address their financial situation, or they can seek a hardship waiver. We are committed to working with any individual, within the law, who received a notice of debt and wants to appeal their case or seek an opportunity to compromise the debt. As we continue this process, we encourage anyone who feels they have received one of these letters in error or has questions to contact FEMA at 1-800-816-1122.
In the years since, we have been working to rectify these problems. Aside from working to significantly improve our recoupment process, we have already put protections in place that will safeguard against fraud and abuse, and significantly reduce the percentage of improper payments. As a result, we have seen drastic improvements in the percentage of disaster assistance improperly disbursed – dropping from 14.5 percent after Hurricane Katrina to less than 3 percent in FY 2009.
We have completed these reviews of these cases for certain disasters, and are mailing out those notices, officially called "notice of debt letters," on a rolling basis, on a staggered schedule, over the next few months. While we are legally required to conduct these recoupments, disaster survivors have been through a lot and they deserve a process that is fair and transparent. Our priority, when developing this new process, was to make sure disaster survivors had complete and clear information about the reasons for their debt described in their notice, and what options are available for appealing or resolving this debt.
Colleen O'Shaughnessy speaks to the Aplington-Parkersburg superintendent tonight at 10.