By J. Smith
FEMA is again in the running for least liked government agency, and they look to be unbeatable this year. The good folks over at the Federal Emergency Management Agency are reviving their tumultuous relationship with Hurricane Katrina victims, demanding that some of them return aid money given to them after the storm. Many New Orleans residents have yet to forgive the department for the slow response as their city and livelihoods were being ravaged. Now, they want that money back.
“As a new hurricane season begins Wednesday, FEMA is working to determine how much money it overpaid or mistakenly awarded to victims of the destructive 2005 hurricane season,” The Huffington Post reports. “The agency is reviewing more than $600 million given to roughly 154,000 victims of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma and is poised to demand that some return money.”
FEMA is valid for reviewing the books and trying to identify previous errors, but given the history of the agency’s relationship with this particular disaster and their timing – six years later – it adds insult to a group that has been badly injured by the residual effects of Hurricane Katrina. People don’t normally save funds given to them to recoup from the damages and immediate costs of severe weather damage, making FEMA’s request to see that money again all the more ludicrous. According to the Post, some of the victims who will be asked to repay the money could need help again if an intense storm hits, and government forecasters are expecting an above average Atlantic storm season this year.
Critics of the new initiative expect legal challenges to extend the already arduous process or even halt it in a way that mirrors previous attempts to collect overpayments. Prior efforts to recover funds were barely successful – hundreds were convicted of hurricane-related fraud but residents who lost homes filed a class-action lawsuit in 2007 challenging the denial of their housing aid and the recoupment process. According to the Post, the lawsuit argued that FEMA’s debt collection efforts were full of errors, based on vague standards and without hearings that would ensure fair treatment. A judge ordered them to suspend debt collection in 2007.
The agency has already taken a major L because of Hurricane Katrina, and would do well to cut their loses and move forward from the tragedy. When will they realize it?