Long Islanders are on the hook for more than a quarter of the nearly $23.4 million in financial assistance awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after superstorm Sandy that it now wants back from residents of New York and New Jersey.
Almost 1,000 letters have been sent demanding $6.79 million from local residents. The amounts that the agency wants returned range from as little as $26.99 from a Massapequa recipient to as much as $31,900 from a Merrick applicant.
Long Beach represents the ZIP code with the highest debt amount in New York and New Jersey -- more than $1.5 million from 227 aid applications, FEMA data show.
The agency can claw back money from residents who got FEMA individual assistance for a variety of reasons, most commonly if an applicant was awarded similar funds from private insurance or another federal aid program.
"At the beginning they want people to sign up . . . but they don't really tell people the pitfalls," said Daniel Strafer, staff attorney at the disaster relief clinic at Touro Law School, which is helping Sandy victims appeal FEMA clawback cases.
After Sandy, FEMA officials said the agency disbursed more than $1.4 billion in aid to 182,911 applicants in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. The money the agency wants back represents less than 2 percent of total program aid, FEMA spokeswoman Susan Hendrick said.
The agency struggles to provide quick financial assistance without much oversight while being protective of taxpayer money, said Rafael Lemaitre, FEMA's director of public affairs.
Mistakes often to blame
The most common reason FEMA sent out clawback requests was because homes were mistakenly listed as primary residences rather than secondary or vacation homes, which are not eligible for FEMA assistance.
"It's not the survivor's fault 100 percent of the time," Lemaitre said. "It's not FEMA's fault 100 percent of the time. The unfortunate part is regardless of who makes the mistake we're required by the federal government to recoup that amount."
FEMA's individual housing program can grant disaster survivors as much as $31,900 to help with rental assistance, to replace damaged property, contents of a home, and other costs.
By law, the money cannot be used to cover what private insurance would pay for, and one application is allowed per household, unless there are legal tenants. It cannot cover payments made through another means, such as insurance payments, grants or other assistance, which is commonly called a duplication of benefits.
But advocates for Sandy victims say the process is hard to understand, appeals are difficult to fight, and many overpayments are FEMA mistakes, not fraud.
"There's just so many issues," Strafer said. "There's a lack of due process and a lack of notice. You get better due process with a speeding ticket."
Strafer has filed 10 appeals, seven of which are in progress. One client was given rental assistance to cover a four-bedroom apartment when she had been living in a two-bedroom. Strafer said an error created the problem. The initial demand was for $10,426 but was negotiated down to $3,887.
"Most of the money has been spent," Strafer said. "That's the real tragedy here. You're talking about low- and moderate-income families who used this in a time of emergency."
Strafer said his clients are dismayed and discouraged. "They feel like they're just powerless," he said. "A lot of them said, 'This just doesn't feel like the United States.' "
According to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the average amount sought by FEMA in New York and New Jersey is $6,560.51. For 589 cases, it was $1,000 or less, and for 165 cases it was more than $25,000.
A South Shore focus
Long Beach isn't the only ZIP code FEMA is focusing on, as other South Shore communities top the list of locals being targeted.
About $603,000 is being demanded in Freeport; the Oceanside tally is in excess of $555,000. Massapequa residents are on the hook for just over $465,000 as of mid-February, according to the latest figures available.
More than $15.1 million of the total being sought by FEMA comes from New York residents.
Recipients of the letters are given 30 days to pay the debt in full or risk interest charges. Appeals must be filed within 60 days, and barring a resolution, penalties begin to accrue within 90 days of the initial debt letter. The agency will follow up with calls and use public records to verify addresses. It can also seek help from the Treasury Department.
Lemaitre said if there is no response to the initial debt letter within 120 days, FEMA turns the case over to Treasury, which has the power to garnish wages, deduct money from tax refunds, Social Security benefits or other state and federal payments. Interest charged by FEMA is 1 percent annually.
"It's very draconian," said Ann Dibble, director of the Storm Response Unit for New York Legal Assistance Group, which helps low- to moderate-income families. "For most people it wasn't even the applicant's mistake . . . it was FEMA's mistake."
The group has handled about 270 appeals cases -- with mixed results -- and roughly 100 of those 270 cases are pending. "We hear from people all the time they would not have taken the money if they had an inkling they were not entitled to it . . . ," she said. "I don't think it's too hard to imagine a better system."
Lemaitre could not provide what percentage of appeals are successful.
After Long Beach resident Elizabeth Treston got a demand letter in October that she owed more than $4,500, she filed an appeal with the help of Dibble's group.
Treston, who uses a wheelchair after a diving accident, said FEMA wanted the money back because of a dispute over who should pay for medical equipment related to her disability.
When her claim was denied for duplication of benefits, she charged it on her American Express card. "I truly do not want the IRS knocking on my door," Treston said. "It's a post-disaster disaster, which could be easily solved if the system was easier. People are giving up and I hate that."
FEMA's Lemaitre said he knew of no threshold for how little money was cost effective to recoup, nor an accounting of how much each recoupment case costs the agency. FEMA is doing a cost-benefit analysis but has not set a date for that to conclude. "We're taking a look at how we can change the process," he said.
Amityville resident Tom Cohill lost two appeals of FEMA's demand for $27,000. He requested a payment plan but has heard nothing in months. He secured a home-equity loan for the full amount to cover the debt. "FEMA is saying we never should have gotten this much money," said Cohill, a retired carpenter. "I never defrauded them. It was their mistake."
Two feet of water washed through Cohill's house and he and his wife lived elsewhere for several months. FEMA wants some of its aid back, he said, because the agency maintains the Cohills had insurance money to use. "They give you the money and then say, 'Oh, you have to give it back,' " he said. "It's unfair what they're doing."
FEMA's individual housing program is separate from its National Flood Insurance Program, which has come under fire after it was revealed insurers falsified claims to limit payouts. New York and New Jersey have initiated criminal probes and FEMA is reviewing as many as 142,000 insurance claims filed after the storm.
Advocates are concerned about the impact any adjusted insurance payouts from that review would have on other federal disaster benefits.
A 2014 Government Accountability Office report identified more than $39 million worth of probable or possibly fraudulent Sandy payments. FEMA disputed $6.1 million of that claim.
GAO said overpayment or ineligible payments happened when FEMA did not check Social Security death records, ensure survivors were not getting rental assistance while living in their homes, or because the agency had no way of checking if applicants with mortgages requiring flood insurance did in fact have the policies.
Strides made in fraud fight
At the same time, GAO said FEMA had come far in preventing fraud. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, an estimated 10 percent to 22 percent of aid made to individuals was fraudulent or at risk of being fraudulent, GAO said.
In 2011, Congress passed the Disaster Assistance Recoupment Fairness Act, giving FEMA authority to waive some debts from improper payments for disasters between August 2005 and the end of 2010.
A new bill seeks to make that authority permanent, so long as waiver amounts don't exceed 4 percent of total FEMA aid, said Gabriel Bitol, legislative director for Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Queens), who filed a bill in February to help victims.
That bill was folded into another one sponsored by Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) that has passed the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
"Congressman Meeks is keenly aware the challenges that victims of natural disasters face navigating the FEMA appeals process," Bitol said.
If passed by Congress, the bill would be retroactive to Sandy and recoupment payments would be refunded, he said.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced a bill in February to reinstate the disaster assistance act, covering disasters from January 2012 through the date of the bill's enactment.
"Requiring superstorm Sandy victims to repay thousands of dollars in aid, 21/2 years after the storm, is wrong and counterproductive, since these funds have already been spent on necessary repairs," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a sponsor of the bill. "FEMA should waive all debt among superstorm Sandy victims, except where there is clear evidence of fraud."