After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, many uttered the acronym “FEMA” as if it was a curse word. Now, six years later the Federal Emergency Management Agency, blamed for it’s slow response to the storm, is telling victims to pay up.
According to The Associated Press, FEMA has so far sent out letters to thousands of residents seeking to reclaim over $22 million dollars. In the letters individuals are told they have at least 30 days to pay back money, appeal FEMA’s demand, compromise or to apply for a hardship waiver. The letters, which have infuriate many survivors, are the result of an internal effort to recoup aid the agency gave to victims of Katrina and other hurricanes during the 2005 season.
While hundreds have been convicted of hurricane-related fraud, FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said many of the cases under review involve mistakes by agency employees or the recipients themselves. Some payments will be deemed proper, some could be referred for fraud investigations and the rest will get letters telling them to pay back improper payments caused by human error, according to Racusen.
“Under our current leadership, strong protections have been put in place to greatly reduce the error rate of improper disaster payments,” Racusen said in a statement. The agency said it has slashed its error rate involving disaster payments from 14.5 percent after Katrina to about 3 percent in 2009.
In 2005, FEMA eased some of its regulations for granting out aid after political pressure on the agency and criticism of its sluggish response came to a head. The agency says that with a new hurricane season beginning today, it has to determine how much of the money it granted out as aid was given out by mistake or overpaid.
Luisa Mejia, 28, a native of New Oleans’ suburb, Metairie says that all she received from FEMA after being driven out her home by Hurricane Katrina was a check for $1,200 to buy clothes and food. In an interview with The Associated Press, she said:
“We left with nothing but important papers and maybe two sets of clothes…We were in Atlanta 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.”
The agency says it is currently reviewing over $600 million dollars of federal aid given to roughly 154,000 victims of Katrina and Hurricanes Rita and Wilma as well. The cases being reviewed represent 10 percent of the $7 billion dollars in aid FEMA granted out for relief.