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FEMA Cites Reasons for Requesting Return of Emergency Relief Funds

June 20, 2019, 1:40 PM HST
* Updated June 20, 1:45 PM
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Fissure 8 and Leilani Estates viewed from the south. Houses in the foreground are located in the southern portion of Leilani Estates. Fissure 8 and surrounding lava and tephra deposits are shrouded in steam, caused by rain water being heated by the warm deposits. PC: USGS

Dozens of eruption evacuees were ordered to return emergency relief funds they got from FEMA due to the 2018 eruption of Kīlauea Volcano, according to a June 17, 2019, video news release from Hawaii News Now.

In the video, evacuees wanted to know why the federal agency that gave them relief funds after last year’s volcanic eruption only to ask for some of that money back.

Big Island Now reached out to county and state officials for more information.

Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) Administrator and State Recovery Coordinating Officer Tom Travis was not available for comment, but the agency did reply to an email sent to [email protected], which found its way to a FEMA Region IX public affairs officer, who responded with the information below.

Although the officer did not address individual cases in the video, she offered general information about the FEMA process, which may be pertinent to the Individual Disaster Assistance cases in the news piece.

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In summary: Letter recipients may have gotten requests to return FEMA funding due to duplication of benefits, assistance provided in error, misuse of funds or fraud. Each applicant must agree in advance to return funds to FEMA when the assistance provided by FEMA duplicates assistance from another source, was provided in error, was spent on expenses inappropriately or was obtained through fraudulent means. But recipients have the right to appeal FEMA’s decision. Seventy-seven of the 1,002 Individuals and Households Program (IHP) Assistance applicants to date have received a request to return funds to FEMA.

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FEMA Q&A

How many letters did FEMA send out? 77 of the 1,002 Individuals and Households Program (IHP) Assistance applicants to date have received a request to return funds to FEMA.

What triggered the notices? FEMA requests the return of IHP Assistance for the following reasons:

  • Duplication of Benefits, which occurs when FEMA provides funds that were also previously received or available from another source, such as insurance or another federal agency. A DOB may also occur when multiple applicants in a household receive an award for the same item or type of assistance.
  • Assistance provided in error, which occurs when FEMA determines assistance was provided to the applicant for which they are not eligible, including exceeding the IHP maximum award.
  • Misuse of funds, which occurs when FEMA determines the applicant spent the funds inappropriately (e.g., using assistance to pay off credit card debt).
  • Fraud, which occurs when FEMA determines the applicant obtained the assistance through false means (e.g., false address, submitting false or altered documents, misrepresenting insurance coverage, etc.).
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What types of FEMA assistance was given to the people who received the letters? (FEMA grants, rental assistance, etc.) Any and all categories of FEMA grant assistance can be requested to be returned for the above reasons (Q2).

How many people have filed appeals? FEMA would need additional information to research this request. These letters are sent as FEMA identifies a need for funds to be returned. If an IHP recipient contests any FEMA decision letter, they can appeal at their convenience within the prescribed time period outlined in their letter (typically 60 days from the date of the letter).

Is it common for people to have to repay FEMA disaster assistance that they were originally told would not have to be repaid? Each applicant must agree to return funds to FEMA when the assistance provided by FEMA duplicates assistance from another source, was provided in error, was spent on expenses inappropriately, or was obtained through fraudulent means. After every disaster, FEMA is required to review disaster assistance payments to ensure taxpayer dollars were properly spent. Those reviews often show a small percentage of specific cases where disaster assistance was given to applicants who were not eligible for some or all of the money they received.

Many people who received these letters are still struggling to recover and are extremely disappointed by the news. Any message from FEMA to them? IHP program recipients have the right to appeal FEMA’s decision.

Does FEMA also have figures available on the number of people who received disaster assistance payments and the total amount? 1,002 IHP Assistance applications were approved for approximately $11,658,490.

Why is FEMA sending letters to some disaster applicants saying that they owe the federal government money? 

After disasters during which disaster applicants receive federal assistance from the government, a small percentage of those disaster applicants may receive payments improperly, whether because of human error or other problems.

Federal laws, including the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 and the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act of 2010, require that federal agencies take actions to identify and recover any improper payments. This process is an important part of FEMA’s obligation and commitment to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars and to guarantee proper safeguards are in place to ensure that federal dollars are correctly spent.

If you received a Notice of Debt letter and would like to know what your options are, refer to the Notice of Debt Options.

I received a Notice of Debt Letter. If I don’t believe I owe this money or this specific amount, may I appeal FEMA’s decision? And if so, how do I file an appeal?

Yes. If you disagree with the debt amount or reason, you may file an appeal. Your appeal letter must be postmarked or your fax must be date stamped by FEMA no more than 60 days after the date shown on the Notice of Debt and must include the following information:

  • Your full name, last four digits of your Social Security Number, disaster number and FEMA application number on all pages of your correspondence.
  • Written explanation of why you believe you do not owe this debt. In addition, your letter must be either notarized, include a copy of a state issued identification card, or include the following statement, “I hereby declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct.” You must also sign the letter.
  • Copies of any documents or statements showing or explaining why you do not owe this debt.
  • You may request an oral hearing. The Notice of Debt letter explains what information is required to request such a hearing. FEMA will let you know if such a hearing will be granted, or if a decision can be made based on documents you sent.

Address your appeal letter to:

FEMA Individuals & Households Program
National Processing Service Center
P.O. Box 10055
Hyattsville, MD 20782-8055

FEMA will make a final decision in writing within 90 days after we receive your appeal letter, or after the conclusion of an oral hearing. If your appeal is successful, we will reduce or cancel your debt and return any money you paid to FEMA in excess of your final debt, including interest payments and other charges in excess of what you owe.

I received a letter from FEMA saying I owe the federal government money. What are my options?

  • When you receive the Notice of Debt letter, your options are:
  • Pay the amount in full (payment in full within 30 days is the only way to avoid interest);
  • Request a payment plan (interest will begin to be applied after 30 days);
  • Request a compromise of the debt;
  • File an appeal within 60 days (interest will apply beginning 30 days after the date on the Notice of Debt letter).

If you file an appeal, FEMA will make a decision on your appeal and send you a letter explaining its decision and what will happen next. Since interest begins accruing after 30 days, we recommend you contact the FEMA Finance Center (FFC) to make payment arrangements while you are appealing the debt. If your appeal is approved, any money you paid in excess of the final debt amount will be returned to you.

If you do not complete one of the options outlined above, or if your appeal is denied, your debt will become final and the (FFC) will continue the collection process by sending you an additional letter, known as a “Letter of Intent.”

The “Letter of Intent” is a notification that FEMA is now taking further action to collect your debt. This letter explains that if you do not pay or resolve the debt with FFC within 30 days, your debt will be forwarded to the U.S. Department of the Treasury for collection. If your debt becomes delinquent, you may be charged penalties, and the interest will continue to grow.

If you do not pay your debt, make arrangements to satisfy your debt with the FEMA Finance Center, or appeal FEMA’s decision, your debt will be forwarded to the U.S. Department of the Treasury for collection. Methods for collecting debt include “offset” (deducting money from other Federal or State payments you may be receiving, like Social Security, income tax refunds, etc.), referral to a private collection agency, or administrative wage garnishment among other debt collection methods. In addition, collection fees will be added to the amounts already being charged.

Applicants can call 1-800-621-3362 for help with these letters.

For more information on Individual Disaster Assistance, go online.

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