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Many Superstorm Sandy Victims, Including Some in New York City & Long Island, Have Been Told by FEMA to Retroactively Pay Back Thousands of Dollars in Already-Spent Sandy Aid; FEMA is Demanding Money Be Returned Due to Technicalities, Bureaucratic Mistakes & More

Schumer, Gillibrand Announce Federal Legislation – The Disaster Assistance Recoupment Fairness Act of 2015 -  to Help Sandy Victims Who Are Still Feeling Financial Impact of Storm; Sixty Percent of New Yorkers Who Received Recoupment Notices Have an Income Less Than $50K


Disaster Assistance Recoupment Fairness Act of 2015 Will Waive FEMA Debts Related to Disaster Assistance & Require FEMA to Refund Disaster Victims for Recoupment Payments That Would Have Been Waived


U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand announced legislation to extend recoupment fairness to Superstorm Sandy victims. After Superstorm Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) made disaster assistance payments to victims throughout the hard-hit areas in New York. As part of its obligation to reduce fraud and waste, FEMA conducts audits of individual assistance payments to identify improper payments made to disaster victims. When FEMA believes it has uncovered improper payment the agency will attempt to recoup the entire grant.


Over two years after Superstorm Sandy, some recipients of disaster assistance are now being blindsided with such recoupment letters from FEMA, requiring them to pay back money already spent on their recovery effort and funds that many no longer have on hand. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the average recoupment amount has been $7,000, and more than 60% of those New Yorkers who received recoupment notices have an income of less than $50,000. Schumer and Gillibrand explained that the vast majority of these cases are not cases of fraud, but rather honest mistakes on behalf of FEMA or the disaster victim.


Previously, the Disaster Assistance Recoupment Fairness Act of 2011 protected against this situation, granting FEMA with additional authority to waive debts incurred as a result of improper payments, however the legislation expired in 2011. Given the financially devastating impacts of Superstorm Sandy and other recent disasters, Schumer and Gillibrand are announcing the Disaster Assistance Recoupment Fairness Act of 2015, which will extend and expand upon the previous recoupment legislation.


“Requiring our New York’s Superstorm Sandy victims to repay thousands of dollars in aid, two and a half years after the storm, is a devastating request for many of these individuals and families, because they have already put this money to good use. This legislation will make sure that these victims can keep this much-needed money,” said Senator Schumer. “Much of this disaster aid has been used in legitimate ways to help victims finally get back on their feet after the storm. FEMA should waive all debt among Superstorm Sandy victims and repay those who have already provided recoupment payments, except where there is clear evidence of fraud.”


“The victims who received FEMA repayments used those dollars to rebuild their homes and businesses, and for FEMA to come back more than two years later to ask for that money back is unfair,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “The funding helped begin the process of rebuilding, and with that work still underway, we must protect the individuals and families who responsibly used these resources to get back on their feet.”


Schumer and Gillibrand are co-sponsors of the “Disaster Assistance Recoupment Fairness Act of 2015” along with Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ), Senator David Vitter (R-LA) and Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA). Earlier this month, Schumer announced that FEMA will stop the Superstorm Sandy recoupment action for thirty Belle Harbor Manor residents. In November 2014, FEMA unexpectedly said that residents of Belle Harbor Manor, an assisted living facility in Rockaway, hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, had to pay back much of the Sandy disaster aid they were initially granted after the storm. In FEMA’s recoupment notices, which arrived long after residents had spent this Sandy aid to get back on their feet, FEMA stated that the aid was supposed to be used solely on temporary housing. However, Belle Harbor Manor residents moved around to different state-funded shelters after the storm, and residents needed to use the Sandy money to purchase other necessary items, like food and clothing. In letters and outreach to FEMA, Schumer explained that many of the Belle Harbor Manor residents involved in the recoupment live on a fixed income and are still feeling the financial effects of Superstorm Sandy.


Schumer and Gillibrand today explained that, like in the case of Belle Harbor, FEMA should extend recoupment fairness to all Superstorm Sandy victims. The legislators said that while it is important to reduce waste, fraud and abuse by cutting down on improper disaster assistance payments, such efforts must be made on the front end of this process, and that doing it on the back end goes against equity and punishes honest Americans.


Bill Summary:

The Disaster Assistance Recoupment Fairness Act of 2015 extends upon previous DARFA legislation.  This act:


·         Requires FEMA to waive debts, related to disaster assistance provided by FEMA to individuals and households for all declared disasters from January 1, 2012 through date of enactment;


·         Requires FEMA to refund disaster victims for recoupment payments made in all cases that would have been waived had this act been in effect when any such payment was made;


·         Forbids FEMA from waiving a debt if the debt involves fraud, the intentional presentation of a false claim, or intentional misrepresentation by the debtor or any party having an interest in the claim.