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N.J. senator seeks to protect Sandy victims from FEMA clawbacks

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and New Jersey Congressman

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and New Jersey Congressman Frank Palone visit the home of Sandy victims Rick and Sandy Drake in Union Beach, N.J., on Jan. 14, 2015. Credit: NJ Advance Media / Noah K. Murray

UNION BEACH, N.J. - Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey unveiled legislation Friday to spare superstorm Sandy victims from having to repay excess federal disaster assistance they inadvertently received after the 2012 storm.

More than 3,500 people in New York and New Jersey have received letters in recent weeks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying they were accidentally awarded too much aid and must now reimburse Washington an average of roughly $6,500.

"This is not about fraud -- this is about the government making a mistake," Menendez, a Democrat, said during a news conference in Union Beach, which is still dotted with Sandy-battered houses. "Disaster victims should never have to pay for someone else's mistake."

In the weeks after the storm, more than 100,000 New Yorkers, including 87,000 on Long Island, received up to $31,900 in disaster aid grants from FEMA to repair flooded homes, replace sodden furniture, pay for hotel stays and cover other storm-related expenses.

FEMA awarded those grants based on the amount of damage victims suffered, how much insurance they had and other factors. In most cases, the money was spent more than two years ago.

In recent months, however, FEMA has reviewed those grants. In some instances, auditors found homeowners received more money than they were allowed under agency rules.

Now, under the provisions of its disaster assistance program, FEMA is asking homeowners to return that excess money.

In some cases, homeowners are being asked to repay up to $24,618, according to a spokesman for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). "It's common sense to waive repayments from Sandy victims, including seniors on fixed incomes, who used every dollar to rebuild and recover," Gillibrand said.

Menendez's bill would require FEMA to forgive aid debts for Sandy victims with household incomes under $250,000. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) plans to introduce a version of the bill in the House of Representatives.

A FEMA spokesman declined to comment on the bills, scheduled to be introduced next week.

Meanwhile, Menendez suggested that any homeowners who receive letters demanding payment appeal to FEMA.

Congress passed similar legislation after Hurricane Katrina to protect storm victims from having to repay Washington for overpayments.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Sandy victims have enough on their plates without having to make up for the government's mistake.

"Clawing back desperately needed federal funds is like pouring salt on the wounds, and I will do all I can to put a stop to it," he said.

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