Kane In Your Corner: FEMA clawbacks an added insult to Superstorm Sandy victims
Thousands of New Jersey families, their homes damaged or destroyed by Sandy, are now being ordered to repay part of their disaster assistance grants and a Kane In Your Corner investigation Wednesday found the rules determining the paybacks sometimes don't seem fair. But homeowner advocates say those who get recoupment letters should not automatically repay and sometimes can keep the disputed funds.
Pat Weber's home in Union Beach looks fine today, but it was a muddy mess immediately after Sandy, flooded by 4 feet of water. With the help of a Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) grant, Weber was able to repair and elevate her home. But in October, the state, acting on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, sent her a letter demanding repayment of $32,000 in grant funds. The primary issue: Weber had qualified for "increased cost of compliance" flood insurance, which the government considers a "duplication of benefits."
Weber considers the clawback unfair. "I paid for [the coverage] for 32 years on [my] flood insurance," she says, adding that without the ICC funds, "I would not have been able to complete the job."
It's a similar story to the one told by Fred Schaffer, of Little Egg Harbor, now being ordered to repay $115,000 in RREM funds. In addition to the grant, he took out a loan from the Small Business Administration. Like Weber, Schaffer insists he needed both to get back in his home.
If that's true, and both Weber and Schaffer can prove it, they may be able to successfully dispute the clawback effort, federal officials say.
"We're required to do a duplication-of-benefits check," FEMA spokesman Bill MacDonald explains. "To make sure there are not two funding sources paying for the same thing." However, MacDonald says, if a family "can provide receipts that there was no duplication of benefits, then that money would not be recouped."
Homeowner advocates say many of the issues could have been prevented if federal officials had simply communicated from the beginning.
Many Sandy homeowners "did everything right in life," says Sue Marticek of the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group. "They lived, they paid their taxes, their insurance, their flood insurance for decades, and here they are, not able to get through because of the real disaster, and the real disaster is the bureaucracy that happened after."
Weber, for example, received a RREM grant of only $120,000, less than the maximum. She might have been able to avert the recoupment effort if, instead of accepting $30,000 in supplemental flood insurance, she had simply applied for more grant money.
FEMA's McDonald admits communication could have been better. "That is a lesson learned," he says. "We are going to have to improve our outreach".
But homeowners still take issue with a system in which the government hands out assistance and then asks for it back. "I did what they told me to do," Weber says. "I should be finished."