- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004

POQUOSON, Va. (AP) — Some residents are upset that the federal government gave them money for hurricane relief and now wants some or all of it back.

“A grant is something the government gives you,” said Roger Covert, one of several Poquoson residents who received letters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Thursday. “They shouldn’t ask for the money back.”

FEMA sent Mr. Covert a letter asking for $4,160, about 75 percent of the money the agency had given him to help restore his flood-damaged home.

It was the second time he had received a FEMA check, followed by a letter asking for money back. “If you do not respond, there may be important financial consequences,” the letters warn.

It’s one example of the frustration with FEMA that hurricane victims have experienced since Hurricane Isabel disrupted their lives in September. Many residents feel as if they’re being punished for following the advice of community leaders who encouraged them to file claims with FEMA, said Angela Watkins.

“I would never have dealt with them and gone through the headaches and paperwork if I had known this would happen,” she said. Miss Watkins received $1,756.67 from FEMA and just heard that the government wants every penny back.

FEMA spokeswoman Niki Edwards said she understands why applicants are upset, but she stressed that many people misinterpret the purpose of disaster relief.

“We call it the recoupment of funds,” Miss Edwards said. “In general, by law FEMA is prohibited from providing assistance when help is available from another source, for example when someone has already been given money from their flood insurance.”

FEMA asks applicants to return grant money when their insurance covers hurricane expenses or when the agency lends them trailers after they’ve already received a check for temporary housing.

Miss Watkins and Mr. Covert both have flood insurance, but it doesn’t cover all of their damage.

Mr. Covert said FEMA never mentioned anything about the possibility of having to return the money when he received his check. “There should be big, bold letters on the check that says, if you use this, you may be asked to give the money back,” he said.

A FEMA representative visited Miss Watkins’ home after the storm, but when she received her check, it stated that the grant was for “supplemental housing.” She didn’t ask for housing money; she asked for money to cover the uninsured contents of her home.

City Councilman Herbert “Buddy” Green described the FEMA problems as “ridiculous,” adding that city officials already were working with FEMA to resolve an earlier wave of letters that went to residents asking for paybacks.

But Poquoson City Manager Charles Burgess said residents might have overlooked information FEMA distributed about the limitations of the grants. “A lot of time in stressful situations and catastrophic times, we don’t hear all the information we need to hear,” Mr. Burgess said.

Several residents received checks for temporary housing in the month after the hurricane. However, when FEMA gave them trailers to live in, the agency asked for some of the housing money back.

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