Spend your FEMA money in Vegas?

by Rob Roper

Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset) was helping constituents who had lost their home in Tropical Storm Irene. The couple had a meeting with a FEMA agent to discuss their case. Based on the level of damage, the couple was set to receive $30,200, the maximum ammount allowed.

That was the good news, but what Komline heard next she found quite disturbing. The husband asked if there were any restrictions on how to use the money. The FEMA agent replied, according to Komline, “You can go to Vegas, go to the Bahamas or give half of it to me. You can spend it however you want.”

Komline was shocked. “Of course he was joking, but these people need help. Anybody would need help in trying to figure out how to maximize that money, because it’s not enough money to bring you back 100%.” Komline is concerned that Vermonters who are receiving payments from FEMA are not getting help or good – or even correct — advice about the best way to use the limited funds they are receiving to best advantage.

It turns out that there are restrictions on how FEMA money can be used. The FEMA Form 009-03, which applicants for FEMA assistance must sign, reads in part:

By my signature I certify that:

  • Only one application has been submitted for my household.
  • All information I have provided regarding my application for FEMA disaster assistance is true and correct to the best of my knowledge.
  • I will return any disaster aid money I received from FEMA or the State if I receive insurance or other money for the same loss, or if I do not use FEMA disaster aid money for the purpose for which it was intended. (emphasis added)

The “purpose intended” is outlined in the cover letter recipients receive along with their check, and they are determined on a case by case basis.

According to a May 2011 story by the Associated Press, FEMA is currently seeking to recoup payments made to more that 5,500 people since 2005, and that number is likely to continue to grow. What’s worse, “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.”

Vermonters should be extra vigilant about the terms and conditions of accepting FEMA dollars, and, as one contractor urged, “keep all of your receipts” regarding how the money is spent.

Komline is recommending that her constituents who have been affected by the storm contact the Bennington Rutland Opportunity Counsel (BROC), “which is our community action center. There are five of those around the state and they can help [victims of the flood] put together a plan for how to go forward. And they are fantastic.” http://www.broc.org

The other organizations Komline was referring to are: Community Action Partnership, Central Vermont Community Action Council,

Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, and

South Eastern Vermont Community Action.