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After FEMA-aid errors, Pryor files bill

By Jane Fullerton

This article was published April 14, 2011 at 3:58 a.m.

— Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor has introduced a bill designed to prevent federal officials from forcing disaster victims to return federal aid funds that were incorrectly distributed.

The legislation came after a 73-year-old Mountain View woman received a letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency saying she had to repay $27,251.83 in disaster aid because the agency discovered she wasn’t eligible for the funds it had approved after flooding in 2008.

FEMA officials had said, after Pryor met with Administrator Craig Fugate, that they were required under federal law to recoup taxpayer money that was improperly distributed. The senator had asked them to halt collection efforts against people who had erroneously received the federal aid, but was told it wouldtake congressional action to do that.

So Pryor responded with a bill that would give FEMA officials flexibility to waive payments in some cases, which he called “a viable solution that ensures innocent people are not held hostage for the agency’s blunders.”

In addition to Carolyn Guglielmana of Mountain View, FEMA officials confirmed they sent similar “Notice of Debt” letters to 34 other Arkansans saying they also must repay their federal disaster assistance. Those households owe a total of more than $200,000.

The letter Guglielmana received said that, as part of routine FEMA audits after every federally declared disaster, the agency discovered she was not eligible for the assistance because she lives in a “special flood hazard area,” a situation further complicated by the fact that Stone County officials have opted not to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program.

Guglielmana, who lives on the White River with her husband, Gary, turned to the state’s senior senator for help. In a two-page, handwritten letter to Pryor, she explained her situation - including details about how FEMA officials not only knew the home was in a flood zone, but reassured her and told her “don’t worry.”

“This is a devastating circumstance for this couple,” Pryor told reporters Wednesday. “They’re on Social Security. They played by the rules. They never would have requested this money had FEMA not insisted they were entitled to it. This is just a terrible situation for them.”

Since Guglielmana’s case became public, Pryor said his office has heard from at least two other Arkansans who received the letters, and who also blame FEMA for the funding errors.

Pryor said it’s understandable that FEMA may need to recoup money in situations where fraud occurred or where private insurance covered damage. “We’re not trying to stop that from happening. That’s a good business practice by FEMA to go and try to recoup that money,” he said. “But what we’re talking about here is money that is given out that is completely a mistake by FEMA that these folks never would have even applied for in the first place if FEMA hadn’t encouraged them to do so.”

Pryor said he also has heard from Senate colleagues with constituents who received similar FEMA letters. As a result, he anticipates bipartisan support for the bill. His Arkansas colleague, Republican Sen. John Boozman, said he agrees that FEMA needs to be given flexibility when it comes to reclaiming erroneously distributed money and will work withPryor on the issue.

FEMA officials said Wednesday that they’re also committed to working with lawmakers. As it now stands, federal law requires the agency to recoup any improperly distributed money, even if it was the agency’s mistake.

“Our priority is to make sure we can continue to serve both disaster survivors and taxpayers as fairly and effectively as possible, and we look forward to continuing to work with Senator Pryor to address, and hopefully help resolve, the concerns he has raised,” said Rachel Racusen, FEMA’s public affairs director in a statement.

Pryor’s bill would allow the FEMA administrator to waive debt repayments resulting from the agency’s error, although not in cases involving fraud. The bill also would waive debts for all cases in which the ineligibility resulted from a community not participating in the National Flood Insurance Program.

Front Section, Pages 2 on 04/14/2011

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Ran2133 says... April 14, 2011 at 8:26 a.m.

The biggest problem here is FEMA personnel are instructed to "get money into the hands of the people after a disaster strikes." I would venture to say most FEMA personnel have no idea what the "legal" requirements are. It's all political until after the fact, then innocent people are surprised with letters from FEMA wanting the money back, even when the error is FEMA's. This is another example of Congress drafting and passing a law with "unintended consequences," which is common. Famous last words, "we have to pass this in order to find out what's in it."k

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