18 months after 2017 flood, FEMA says some who got assistance may be ineligible
Some Ozark County residents who received financial assistance from FEMA after the devastating 2017 flood recently received letters from the agency saying they may have to give the money back.
The upsetting surprise was revealed during a recent meeting of the Ozark County Long-Term Recovery Committee, which was organized last year to assist those in need of help after last year’s historic flood. At the committee’s recent meeting, it was decided that the group would expand its scope to respond to Ozark Countians in need after other catastrophes, as well, including such disasters as house fires and future floods.
Committee chairman Shawn Taylor said the group learned of the FEMA “notice of potential debt letter” when one recipient of the letter described it at the meeting. Since then, the Times has spoken with the person who told the committee about the letter as well as another person who received the same letter. Both persons asked not to be named.
Taylor said he doesn’t know how many families or individuals received FEMA funds after the flood that damaged or destroyed homes along the North Fork of the White River and caused severe damage in other areas, but he believes it was several. He also doesn’t know how much the agency awarded to the various flood survivors, but he’s heard of assistance payments ranging from several hundred dollars up to as much as $33,000, depending on the reported losses.
The recent FEMA “notice of potential debt letter” shared with the Times by one of the flood survivors says, “FEMA has carefully reviewed the assistance provided you and determined you may NOT be eligible.”
The letter continues, saying FEMA’s records indicate “your home is located in a Special Flood Hazard Area” and “your community does not participate in the National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA is prohibited from providing assistance for insurable real and personal property to individuals whose homes are located in an SFHA when a community is not participating....”
The warning comes as a shock – and also a puzzle.
Most owners of homes along the North Fork that were destroyed or badly damaged in the April 29, 2017, flood were fully aware that Ozark County doesn’t participate in the National Flood Insurance Program. The county’s lack of participation meant those homeowners couldn’t buy flood insurance. So, immediately after the flood, although most of them needed help badly, they assumed no FEMA financial assistance would be forthcoming – unless the county joined the NFIP within six months of the disaster, something the county commissioners chose not to do. In statements to the Times, the commissioners said they believed most Ozark County residents didn’t want what they assumed would be cumbersome government regulations imposed by NFIP participation.
But FEMA representatives repeatedly urged residents to register with the agency, even if they thought they were ineligible for assistance. Those recommendations were published in several issues of the Ozark County Times. And then, to some of the residents’ surprise, after they registered and completed the paperwork presented to them, they were awarded FEMA financial assistance.
One of those recipients told the Times they had held on to the FEMA funds for a year to make sure “something didn’t come up. We thought after a year we were good to go.” Then they spent the FEMA money in their efforts to recover from the devastating losses they had incurred.
“I don’t understand,” the letter recipient said. “All this stuff in the letter that says we’re ineligible – FEMA knew all that when they were here. They gave us assistance – and now they’re saying they want that money back?”
The FEMA letter says if recipients disagree with the charge that they were ineligible to receive the funds, they can appeal by providing “a written statement from your local floodplain manager or building official that confirms your home is not located in an SFHA, or proof that your community entered the National Flood Insurance Program during the six-month period following the disaster declaration.”
Written appeal letters, with specified documents and details, “must be postmarked no later than 60 days from the date of the letter,” which was Sept. 12 on the letter the Times was shown.
If the recipient doesn’t appeal, “this potential debt will become final and will be sent to FEMA’s Finance Center for further action,” the letter says.
Ozark Countians aren’t alone in having FEMA demand assistance money repayment. An internet search of phrases such as “FEMA demands repayment” finds dozens of pages listing stories, websites and videos of storm survivors sharing how the agency insisted that assistance funds be returned. Several sites report how some survivors of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated much of New Orleans in 2005, were hit with FEMA repayment demands as long as 12 years after the disaster.
LTRC chairman Shawn Taylor said the upsetting turn of events for flood survivors proves the merit of the committee’s decision to expand its purpose. “The fact that FEMA is attempting to recoup its money from survivors of the April 2017 flood confirms how strongly we feel that it is important to be able to look out for our fellow Ozark County residents locally. No one knows better the needs of survivors nor can anyone respond more rapidly than the friends and neighbors of those going through difficult times. That’s why the committee has decided to expand its purpose beyond the 2017 flood and is now looking to help those in need during other catastrophic situations.”