FEMA TO DISASTER VICTIMS: SEND BACK EVERY PENNY

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Harris Fire survivors among thousands nationwide ordered to return money to FEMA

By Miriam Raftery

May 12, 2011 (Potrero) – Donald and Veronica Lytle are stunned after receiving a letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) demanding that they return all of the $1,647.43 that FEMA paid them in 2007 for cleanup and temporary lodging after their home on Potrero Valley Road was damaged in the Harris wildfire. FEMA has offered no explanation for the demand, other than stating that the entire amount was an “overpayment.”

 

The Lytles say FEMA insists their home did not suffer fire damage--despite mounds of ashes blown inside and a hole knocked in the roof by a tree felled during a firestorm so extreme that it fueled its own weather system.

 

ECM editor Miriam Raftery visited Potrero during that firestorm and concidentally, interviewed the Lytles’ next-door neighbor—witnessing firsthand the devastation clearly caused by the horrific wildfire.

 

The Lytles’ case is not an isolated instance of bureaucratic bungling. According to the Associated Press, FEMA has recently sent repayment demands to over 5,500 people nationwide who were victims of 129 separate disasters since 2005 including floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes.

 

“FEMA admits the payments were largely its own fault—the result of employees who misunderstood eligibility rules, approved duplicate assistance for costs that were already covered by insurance or other sources, or made accounting errors,” AP reported.

 

A FEMA spokesperson who declined to be named admitted to ECM that none of the repayments requested were due to fraud. Yet the agency now expects disaster victims to foot the bill for FEMA’s admitted errors.
 

Victims like Justin Van Fleet, a call center worker in Cedar Rapids Iowa. The 2008 Cedar River flood destroy his home and belongings. But now FEMA wants him to pay back the $20,000 in disaster funds he received, now claiming he was ineligible. All told, FEMA seeks repayment of $22 million for at best, bureaucratic bungling and at worst, demanding money back from people whose claims may be legitimate.
 

The agency says it is required by law to try and recover funds and be “responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars,” according to FEMA spokesperson Rachel Racusen.
 

That’s no comfort to the Lytles, taxpayers who feel the compensation they received was meager at best and that the repayment demand—four years after the fire—is unreasonable.
 

“I got this paperwork on January 23,” Veronica Lytle told East County Magazine. “I’m disabled…I have herniated disks.” The couple has until May 25 to pay up or file an appeal. But there’s a big catch. “They want you to pay the money up front to file an appeal,” Veronica said. “I just can’t afford to put that money out….My health insurance company is trying to cut me off by the first of June and I don’t even have any money to live on.”

 

She added that she takes four or five different medications that each cost more than $200. Her husband, Donald, makes a little money as in-home caregiver for Veronica’s 90-year-old mother, who has dementia. But now the state of California is considering eliminating funding for family members to provide in-home care—meaning Donald could lose his income, too.

Donald Lytle said a FEMA inspector told him that “we didn’t have fire damage.”
 

The Lytle’s house did not burn. It did, however, have major damage due to ashes that blew inside and hurricane-force winds in excess of 100 mph fueled by the firestorm.

 

“We had a tree come down on the house and put a bit huge hole n the ceiling,” Veronica said. “The black door got blown out.” As a result, she said, the interior of the home was covered in six inches of ashes and dirt that blew in from a field across the street where a neighbor had just cleared away weeds with a backhoe three days before the fire.
 

Donald recalled, “The road across the street used to be higher than our property; now the land is higher than the road.” He said the backyard still has piles of ash that blew straight threw the home.

But there's no need to take their word for it. Potrero Planning Group member Jan Hedlun, an elected official, visited the property immediately after the fire.

 

“I will never forget seeing her in tears, sitting outside her home, staring at the piles of dirt up against the south side of the house – the front facing Potrero Valley Road, while Don led me inside,” Hedlun said of Veronica Lytle. “The exterior was a wasteland from the sand dunes covering her yard.”
 

Inside, Hedlun recalls seeing “dirt, sand, soot and ashes in some places several inches thick.” High winds created a “tunnel” inside were the dirt and ash “churned around like mini cyclones, catching up everything in its midst….There was not an inch of surface that wasn’t completely covered…” Items had fallen off shelves and were covered in the debris, she recalled, adding that a couch and chairs were buried and the sink was filled with mud. “I had to wear my clothing burnoose style, with a scarf wrapped over my head and across my mouth and nose so I could breath.”
 

The couple had no insurance. Eventually, they scraped together enough money to repair the roof, with help from friends and neighbors to clear away the muck. “To this day there is still silt sifting down from the roof over the bedroom where it was captured in the insulation,” Hedlun told ECM, adding that Donald also has health issues. “They don’t have the wherewithal or finances to tear that portion of the house apart to clean or replace the insulation and must constantly deal with the aftermath….Considering what toxins were in the soil from the burning homes, plus the poisonous plants in the area, it is a wonder she isn’t constantly sick,”added Hedlun, who had to vacate her own home permanently due to contamination from the wildfire.

Coincidentally, I interviewed Hedlun and other Potrero residents back in 2007 and actually went to Potrero in the midst of the multi-day Harris Fire—including, ironically, visiting a home next door to the Lytle home that was being used as a soup kitchen to feed disaster victims. I personally witnessed mountains of ash in and around Potrero Valley Road and at every resident nearby. Ashes covered my car within an hour of parking next door. The air was so thick with soot that I was soon wheezing.
 

A day or so before my visit, I interviewed other Potrero residents via cell phone and e-mail.
 

“It’s like Armageddon,” Potrero resident Jill Michaels told me in an interview published in the Alpine sun. Michaels watched her own house burn down. The fire in Potrero claimed the life of Potrero resident Tom Varshock and seriously injured his son as the fast-burning fire overtook them.
 

Hedlun, in a cell phone interview on October 23, 2007, described the scenario this way. “It’s like the Kalahari Desert as you drive down Potrero Valley Road. There are sand dunes everywhere—dirt and ash. We dcan’t get in or out and we are running out of supplies.” Another source described Potrero as “a moonscape.” These descriptions appeared in a story I wrote that was published on the Calitics website.
 

Veronica Lytle recalls evacuating hastily on the first morning of the fire, when strong winds nearly knocked her elderly mother over as the fire spread with lightning speed. Her husband followed in another vehicle, heading down Highway 94 toward Barrett Junction in smoke so thick “we could not see firetrucks coming down with winds and dirt,” Veronica said. “He had the flashing lights and we couldn’t even see it with the dust; I said `I hope to God he makes it down.’”
 

This reporter was in Barrett Junction that morning and witnessed a fireball explode over the mountain from Potrero, racing toward Barrett Junction, where firefighters got on a bullhorn and warned everyone to evacuate immediately as people ran for their lives.
 

Adding insult to injury, Veronica Lytle says that a FEMA inspector came through two or three weeks after the fire, while cleanup was in progress and turned on a microwave, TV and air conditioner – each of which burned out instantly from sand or ash in the machines. “She said, ‘Oh, sorry, we can’t do anything about that,” Lytle recalled angrily.
 

ECM contacted FEMA for comment on the Lytle case. We also requested records on how many disaster victims in San Diego County have been asked to return payments. ECM also asked for an explanation as to why ashes inside a home would not be considered fire damage, given that ashes are burned debris from a fire. In addition, we asked why disaster victims should suffer the consequences if FEMA does make a mistake.

The agency has indicated it will research local information and get back to ECM later. However, Racusen disclosed that “In 2007, as a result of a lawsuit filed under the previous administration, FEMA’s recoupment efforts were suspended.” Those efforts included trying to take back monies paid to victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “Since then, FEMA has made key improvements to the recoupment process so that it is fair, easy to understand for disaster survivors, and includes ample opportunities for survivors to appeal FEMA decisions,” Racusen added.

Victims also have the option to work out payment plans or ask for a waiver based on hardship. Repayments are requested in cases of “human or accounting errors” as well as duplication of benefits received from other sources.
 

The Lytles say they did not receive any assistance from other government sources and they had no homeowners’ insurance.
 

FEMA is currently conducting reviews of approximately 160,000 cases of “potential improper payments,” according to Racusen. After publishing final rules of a new recoupment plan in the Federal Register, she added, “in mid-March we began notifying individuals that may have received improper payments of their potential debt, the reasons for that debt, and what their options are for either paying or appealing their debt.”
 

ECM has sent information on the Lytle case to Supervisor Dianne Jacob, Congressman Duncan Hunter, and Senator Barbara Boxer requesting comment. A Jacob spokeswoman responded that the Supervisor is out of town today, but noted that she will be “very interested” in FEMA’s response.
 

Veronica Lytle, meanwhile, worries about her future and asks, “How many other people are they doing this to?”
 

If you or someone you know in San Diego County has been asked to return money to FEMA, we want to hear about it. Please contact editor@eastcountymagazine.org or call 619-698-7617.