After the raging Cedar River filled his home with 13 feet of water and ruined most of his possessions, Justin Van Fleet pleaded for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get back on his feet.
Dead broke and living in a FEMA trailer following the 2008 flood, Van Fleet repeatedly submitted paperwork and made countless phone calls arguing his case. After seven months, the agency finally gave him more than $20,000, which he said gave him his life back and allowed him to move into a house.
Then in March, a letter arrived from the government with a shocking message: He should never have gotten the money. And he had just 30 days to pay it all back.
The agency is asking Van Fleet and thousands of other Americans who were victims of natural disasters to return more than $22 million in government aid, acknowledging it mistakenly made payments to many people who were ineligible.
FEMA is required by law to recover improperly spent money, but most of the people who were helped say they used the cash years ago, and they don’t want to be financially punished because of the agency’s errors.
“It literally felt like everything is being taken away from me again,” said Van Fleet, a 28-year-old call center worker. “It’s like going through the flood again.”
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that FEMA is seeking payments from more than 5,500 people who were affected by 129 separate disasters since 2005, including floods, tornados, hurricanes and other calamities from Arkansas to American Samoa. The agency is still reviewing records, and more repayment requests could go out soon, including to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
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. But the agency is still obligated to try to recover the money.
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