FEMA wants some eruption evacuees to return disaster assistance funds

Dozens of eruption evacuees ordered to return emergency relief funds they got from FEMA

PUNA, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Dozens of eruption evacuees say a federal agency that gave them funds after last year’s Kilauea disaster is now asking for some of the money back.

The Puna residents have been billed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for various reasons.

FEMA officials said the people were warned the funding was contingent on numerous factors, but some blame the agency for approving them in the first place.

Shannon “Smiley” Burrows received $16,630.82 from FEMA for rental assistance and possessions she lost when lava claimed her family’s Kapoho home.

She received a notice in March that said she may not be eligible for the money.

“I feel like for them to come back a year later, almost, and to say, ‘Oh wait, wait we were wrong, you owe us this money back,’ it was very upsetting,” said Burrows.

According to the letter, FEMA records indicated that the house was not her primary residence.

Although the home was in her mother’s trust, Burrows said she had a lifetime lease. She plans to appeal by submitting utility bills as proof that she lived there.

“It’s like kicking somebody when they’re already down. We’re still unable to get back to our farm,” said Burrows.

FEMA approved 1,002 applications totaling more than $11.6 million for the Individuals and Households Program. At least 77 of those people have received a letter asking for funds to be returned.

The agency said each applicant must agree to repay the funds when the money duplicates assistance from another source, was provided in error, was spent inappropriately, or was obtained through fraudulent means.

FEMA officials said they’re required by federal law to review disaster assistance payments to ensure that taxpayer dollars were properly spent.

A spokesperson said reviews of disaster assistance payments often show a small percentage of cases where aid was given to applicants who weren’t eligible for all or some of the money.

“We’re hoping that through further follow up with FEMA, people will either become better aware of why FEMA is sending these letters out and/or they’ll be able to use the appeal process,” said Diane Ley, the county research and development director.

Cherie King got a notice that said she was overpaid $1,009 in rental assistance.

“I’m mad because I needed that help and I’m on a fixed income,” she said. “I can’t pay that back and I don’t think I need to pay it back. I used it for what it was for.”

Program recipients have the right to appeal FEMA’s decision.

“I just question the whole process itself. Why weren’t questions or verifications done early in the process before issuing the money?” wondered Hawaii County councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz.

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