FEMA ADJUSTS REFUND DEMANDS MADE TO MORE LOCAL FIRE VICTIMS

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 Miriam Raftery

June 12, 2011 (San Diego’s East County) – Last week, as ECM reported, FEMA retracted its demand for Harris Fire survivor Veronica Lytle of Potrero to pay back disaster funds that FEMA had claimed were paid in error. Now FEMA informs ECM that 40 survivors of the 2007 California firestorms have been sent recoupment letters.

“FEMA received four appeals from applicants who were affected by disasters which occurred in San Diego County,” said a FEMA spokesperson who asked not to be named. “FEMA either rescinded or adjusted the amount identified for recoupment on three of the four appeals.”

It is unclear whether the remaining 36 local victims decided to pay back the money, or have simply not responded—nor whether their deadline to respond has been reached. ECM has asked for additional details.

Meanwhile, the FEMA representative noted, recipients of recoupment demand notices have several options. “They can file an appeal to challenge the debt, they can request a payment plan to address their financial situation, or they can seek a hardship waiver. We are committed to working with any individual, within the law, who received a notice of debt and wants to appeal their case or seek an opportunity to compromise the debt.” The spokesperson added that FEMA will review all appeals received. “As we continue this process, we encourage anyone who feels they have received one of these letters in error or has questions to contact FEMA at 1-800-816-1122.”

East County Magazine would like to speak with fire survivors who received refund demand notices. If you or someone you know has received such notice, please contact editor@eastcountymagazine.org or call 619-698-7617.

In addition, Supervisor Dianne Jacob, Congressman Duncan Hunter and Congressman Bob Filner have all expressed interest in hearing from fire victims pressured by FEMA to return disaster payments. All three elected officials sent letters to FEMA urging that the agency stop seeking refunds from disaster victims except in cases where fraud can be determined.

FEMA has indicated that none of the 40 local cases involved fraud--nor did any of the 5,500 refund demand cases nationwide.  Rather they stem from mistakes allegedly made by FEMA’s own inspectors. In the Lytle case, a FEMA inspector attributed damage initially to wind, which was not covered under California’s 2007 disaster declaration. After being shown photos of ashes inside the home which clearly resulted from the fire, FEMA dropped its refund demand in the case.