Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Help Me Howard: FEMA
If you have lived in South Florida during a hurricane, you know how many people depend on emergency aid after a storm. The good news is, FEMA moves in. The bad news for one South Floridian is, FEMA is back, demanding money they gave him six years ago. But there is one major problem with their demand, and it brings up the question: do you have to return disaster aid? Here is the answer from Help Me Howard with Patrick Fraser.
WSVN -- Some people find the love of their life early in life. It happened to Cheryl and Desmond later in life.
Cheryl Norris, Newlywed: "We had a little wedding, but, I mean, it was fun. He makes me laugh. That's something I always tell everybody. He makes me laugh a lot."
The Norris' got married in September, just in time for Cheryl to help Desmond battle FEMA.
Desmond Norris, Battling FEMA: "Roof caved down, water leaked down from the apartment and flood me in."
In 2004, Hurricane Frances damaged the apartment Desmond was living in. He says a representative from FEMA came by.
Desmond Norris: "'Oh, it's a mess. She is telling me you can't live in here.' I got a check in the mail for $700 dollars."
Desmond has this Sept. 2004 letter from FEMA telling him that an inspection determined he was getting a check for $726 in disaster relief. Desmond says, he used the money to move into a different apartment. Then last year, five years later, he got this letter from FEMA.
Cheryl Norris: "They claim that he got some money and that he lied about the claim, so they want their money back."
FEMA is now saying Desmond was not eligible for disaster assistance in 2004, and he has to return the money they sent him: $2,592.
Cheryl Norris: "He said he only got one check, which is $726."
Cheryl contacted FEMA and told them they had the wrong person, that Desmond only got $726 and did not get a check for $2,592.
Cheryl Norris: "I want to see the check, a copy of the check that they claim they sent to him. Who cashed it? Well, when I asked them to please fax me or whatever a copy of the check they claim they issued to him, they don't give me no answer."
Cheryl faxed in another appeal, and she says when she followed it up with a phone call, she did not get a sympathetic ear.
Cheryl Norris: "Well she told me, 'You could go ahead and dispute it, but this is a federal issue. There is no winning.'"
Cheryl is convinced FEMA is making a mistake, but FEMA does not agree, threatened to seize Desmond's tax returns and has turned the case over to a collection agency, where the money Desmond owes is soaring.
"Another one says $5,194. See? $5,265."
Well Howard, can FEMA come back years after a disaster and try to recover money they handed out without showing Desmond proof that they gave him all that extra money?
Howard Finkelstein: "FEMA does have a right to go back years to recoup money from people that they now determine were not qualified for disaster aid, but the law also says that FEMA has to show Desmond copies of the checks they gave him or the proof they have that his apartment was not damaged. Desmond has requested that. He needs to ask for it again."
When we contacted FEMA, their records show Desmond received two checks: the $726 check and a week later, a second check for $1,866. Desmond says he never got that second check. Since we called FEMA about Desmond, they have decided to review his case again.
Howard Finkelstein: "FEMA has a history of using bad methods to recoup disaster money. In fact, in 2007, a federal judge ordered them to stop their inappropriate recoupment practices. To make sure this never happens to you, if you need aid from FEMA, make sure you take pictures of the damage and copies of all the paperwork. That way, you don't have to rely on their files."
Cheryl and Desmond will continue to fight, convinced they are being taken advantage of by the federal government.
Cheryl Norris: "I'm double frustrated. I am so, like, believe me, if I had money like that, I would get me a good lawyer and take them to court, because I don't think this is right. Federal or not, it's not right for them to do things like that. It's not right. We're the little people. Don't do us like this."
Patrick Fraser: "And it looks like Cheryl and Desmond will be getting some more help. Legal Services of Greater Miami has offered to meet with them to see if they qualify for assistance to help determine who cashed that second check, 'cause when you are dealing with the government, you need all the assistance you can get."
A disaster devastating you? Need some assistance you won't have to repay? Contact us. We won't come after your bank accounts. We just want to give you some aid: legal aid.