When Catherine Tango opened the letter from FEMA in October, she began to panic.
Homeless after Superstorm Sandy flooded the Ortley Beach condominium she was renting, Tango, 61, relied on assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay her rent and living expenses at an apartment she rented in Howell. But the October letter demanded repayment of $15,500 — and threatened to garnish her monthly Social Security disability check if she didn’t pay it back.
“When I found out I could get FEMA help, it was a blessing,” Tango said. “Now it’s like a nightmare.”
FEMA says 1,200 New Jerseyans have received what it refers to as a recoupment letter. The agency is seeking $8 million in repayment from people it now says shouldn’t have received that money in the first place.
Such a letter was addressed to Jill Svelling Belloff’s Forked River rental home, not the lonely mailbox that fronts the empty dirt lot in Waretown where her Sandy-soaked home once was, and where a new house someday will stand. The demand letter arrived just a couple of weeks before her husband underwent open-heart surgery.
“I’m paying a mortgage, I’m paying rent, I’m paying storage fees, and now my husband might not be able to work — he’s self-employed — and we don’t even have a building permit,” Svelling Belloff, 54, said. “I can’t even express how frustrated I am with how this has all been handled.”
A FEMA spokesman told the Asbury Park Press in a statement that the agency had provided $1.4 billion in assistance to nearly 183,000 Sandy survivors. FEMA routinely audits disaster assistance payments and, as of Oct. 31, just 2 percent — about 3,600 individuals or families — of those survivors had received recoupment letters, seeking payback for a combined $23 million that FEMA says never should have been paid out.
“Unfortunately, whether through fraud, human or accounting errors, or other reasons, assistance sometimes goes to individuals who are not eligible,” the statement reads.
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SOURCE: USA Today / Asbury Park (N.J.) Press – Jean Mikle and Russ Zimmer