AP: FEMA rejects appeals worth $1.2B in decade

By The Associated Press
Oct. 15, 2017 at 10:18 p.m.
Updated Oct. 16, 2017 at 11:15 a.m.

This Sept. 26 photo shows a catch basin for water in Sweetwater, Fla. The Miami suburb was flooded in 1999 by a hurricane and again in 2000 by more storms - they received $2 million from FEMA for debris removal and repairs to public facilities, including this and other drains, according to Mayor Orlando Lopez. More than a decade later, FEMA demanded the money back, citing a lack of documentation for the costs.

This Sept. 26 photo shows a catch basin for water in Sweetwater, Fla. The Miami suburb was flooded in 1999 by a hurricane and again in 2000 by more storms - they received $2 million from FEMA for debris removal and repairs to public facilities, including this and other drains, according to Mayor Orlando Lopez. More than a decade later, FEMA demanded the money back, citing a lack of documentation for the costs.   AP for The Victoria Advocate

As U.S. communities ravaged by this year's series of intense hurricanes and wildfires clear debris and begin to rebuild, many are counting on the federal government to help cover their costs. They could be in for a frustrating surprise.

If history is any guide, some local governments and nonprofit organizations could get less than they were told to expect from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Others could be asked years from now to repay some or all of the aid they received if FEMA concludes the projects failed to comply with its voluminous requirements or decides it shouldn't have approved the payouts in the first place.

During the past decade, FEMA's denials and reversals have caused uncertainty and anger in some communities, led to long rounds of appeals, strained local budgets, made it hard for some organizations to stay afloat and occasionally delayed the rebuilding process.

"My word of advice for everybody is document, document, document," warned a frustrated Mayor Orlando Lopez of Sweetwater, Fla. "Cross your t's, dot your i's and back up everything."

Aug. 15, FEMA denied an appeal from the Miami suburb and said it must repay $2 million it received nearly two decades ago to repair storm damage because it failed to adequately document work done. Lopez called FEMA's actions "completely and utterly unfair." A few weeks after the denial, Sweetwater suffered a fresh round of damage from Hurricane Irma.

For its part, FEMA is legally obligated to look out for the taxpayers' money and guard against misuse and fraud by local governments and organizations that overcharge the federal government or use emergency aid to undertake long-desired improvements they couldn't otherwise afford.

Christopher Logan, FEMA's public assistance director, said in the agency's defense major disasters can result in "extremely complex, technically complicated projects that span many, many years." But he said the agency has recently taken steps to reduce what he called misunderstandings.

An analysis by The Associated Press found during the past decade, FEMA headquarters has denied appeals for at least $1.2 billion sought by local governments and nonprofit groups to protect or rebuild communities hit by hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes or other major disasters.

The AP reviewed more than 900 final appeal rulings. In one-third of those cases, FEMA granted some or all of the requested funding, totaling about $250 million. Two-thirds of the appeals were rejected, probably totaling well more than the $1.2 billion tallied by the AP because the amounts denied were unclear in FEMA's online records for more than 100 cases.

The money at stake in those cases was just a tiny fraction of the tens of billions of dollars FEMA paid out during that period. Yet the disputes may offer a glimpse of some of the challenges communities struck by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate could face in the years and even decades ahead.

The AP's review found FEMA has argued with local governments and nonprofits - and faced disagreements within its own ranks - over hundreds of matters big and small: whether buildings should be repaired or replaced; whether certain damage was caused by a disaster or by pre-existing problems; even whether tree stumps were the proper size to qualify for removal using federal aid.

Among the appeals squelched by FEMA: Florida's attempt to get $51 million it claimed to have lost by waiving tolls for motorists evacuating from eight hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.

FEMA's final decisions sometimes come long after a disaster has struck and even well after the money has been spent.

The agency also has repeatedly rejected funding requests based on the applicant's failure to appeal within the required 60 days - even though FEMA acknowledges it routinely exceeds its own 90-day legal deadline to rule on appeals.

FEMA's Logan said the agency recently overhauled its disaster operations to provide each applicant with a single contact person and more information about the potential pitfalls in seeking federal aid.


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