It Happened To Me: FEMA Is Making Me Repay My Disaster Relief Grants

After our new Connecticut home was hit by Hurricane Irene, FEMA stepped up to help with disaster relief. What we didn't know is that they would ask us to pay it all back two years later.
Publish date:
September 4, 2013
flood, natural disasters, FEMA

My husband and I moved into our first home in July, 2011. We were excited to have found a riverfront property in Connecticut for a price we could afford. The neighborhood is a little sketchy, but we don’t have any children so we can handle it. My husband Nathan is a fisherman, so he loves being by the water, and I of course love the idea of living on the Connecticut River for scenery reasons. The previous owners told us the last flood that affected the house was back in the 1980’s, so it didn’t appear that we would have to worry.

In late August, not even 2 months after we settled in and had our housewarming party, Hurricane Irene came barreling past us. The actual hurricane left us unscathed, so we thought we were free and clear. But when the storm turned inward and over Vermont, it poured a massive amount of water over the Connecticut River, causing it to overflow.

Then the river overflowed in Massachusetts.

And finally, it affected us in Connecticut.

I woke up the day after Hurricane Irene had dissipated and began getting ready for work as normal, until I looked out our bathroom window and noticed the river – which was about 20 feet down off the cliff at the end of the back yard the day before – had swallowed half of my backyard.

And throughout the day, the river just kept rising. I rushed to move our belongings to higher ground as my husband manned 3 sub pumps in the basement trying to keep the water out of our house. After about 10 hours of fighting, the fire department advised us that it would be best if we just let the floodwaters enter the basement. Since the river had surrounded our house, the pressure from the water pushing against the house may have caused the foundation to implode.

So we stopped fighting. We let the basement window smash from the pressure and watched helplessly as the disgusting murky water and river creatures filled our basement.

The utilities on our street had been shut off early on for safety reasons, and my husband and I had no choice but to round up our 3 kitties and find some place else to stay for 10 days.

Day 2 of the flood was the worst, and we measured 6 feet of water in our basement at the highest level. If the river had risen another foot, we would have had damage to the first floor of our house as well.

On day 3, the river crested and it took another day for the river to fully recede.

We didn’t have much time to relax after the river had receded, because a few dams broke in Vermont, causing the river to spill back across our lawn and into our basement just as quick as it had left. We had to relive the helplessness a second time.

I took a plethora of video during the flood, for insurance reasons. We had only lived at the house a short time, and we hadn’t really read through our flood insurance policy so we were unsure of what would be covered. As we began filing our claim, we learned that our flood insurance policy covered appliances that were directly connected to our home, mainly the hot water heater and the furnace.

This is where we had unknowingly gone wrong. In our frenzy of trying to save our things from the rising waters, my husband and a neighbor thought it would be a good idea to save our furnace, the most expensive appliance in the basement. Now, after realizing what our flood insurance would have covered, we realized this was a foolish decision.

Our flood insurance agent explained that they would not cover the cost for the replacement furnace because it wasn't "directly submerged by the floodwaters." We should have let it drown. To make matters worse, we couldn't find any technicians willing to help us re-attach the furnace because it was more than 20 years old, and all of the pipes and wiring were ruined in the transition from the basement to the first floor.

We endured 37 days without hot water before our flood insurance sent us the money to cover the cost to replace our hot water heater. But we were still left without the furnace, and winter was approaching.

We contacted FEMA to see if we were eligible for grants to help us pay for the other damages, but most importantly, a new furnace. After a month of interviews, inspections, and applications, FEMA granted us enough money to cover the costs of a replacement furnace and basement cleanup. They provided reimbursement for our temporary housing, and we were able to purchase a used washer and dryer we found on craigslist.

It took us about a year to get our house back to a livable condition, but we worked hard to save our first home and have made some smart changes to our living areas to ensure our safety in case we are flooded again.

Two years passed by and my husband and I had nothing but nice things to say about FEMA and how they helped us when our flood insurance let us down. We haven't had any other flood incidences and things have been pretty great living on the river.

Until May 2013, when we received a letter stating our FEMA agent had miscalculated the amount of aid we should have received. FEMA is requesting that we pay back 1/3 of the grant money they gave us for disaster relief. The recoupment letter was about 5 pages long, but there was no explanation as to how they arrived at the figure they were asking us to repay.

We had the opportunity to appeal their decision, so my husband and I rounded up all of the receipts, invoices, letters, and more (much of which we had sent them during the original disaster aid application and interview process) and sent FEMA our 21 page appeal to prove we had properly used all of the grant money we received for disaster aid.

Four months later, we received notice that FEMA denied our appeal.

Feeling defeated, I called FEMA to set up our “repayment plan,” only to be kicked by them a bit harder. The FEMA representative told me we have to send them last year’s tax documents, bank statements, and other financial records so that THEY can determine how much money we can afford to send them as a repayment every month – or even worse – the representative told me they may decide we can afford to pay in a lump sum. I asked if there were any other options for us if we truly cannot pay in a lump sum if that is what they ask, and the rep said no.

I have found numerous online articles revealing other victims of natural disasters who had received grants from FEMA and are also being made to repay the money years after the fact. FEMA asked Hurricane Katrina victims to repay their grants, as well as victims of other disasters who received aid, like this story, and this one.

Because of my personal experience and these other stories, I am left to believe that recouping grant money given to disaster victims is something FEMA does on the regular. If this is the case, FEMA needs to tell people ahead of time that the grants they award for disaster relief are really loans. I don’t see how their “miscalculation” that they discovered 2 years later, is our fault.

A provision was put into place in 2011 to protect Hurricane Katrina victims from FEMA's debt-collection requests, but this provision only applies to those Hurricane Katrina cases, and it is my understanding that a new provision must be created for each new natural disaster case.

I hope my story brings awareness to how FEMA actually "helps" victims of natural disasters. I reached out to my local news station, WFSB Channel 3, who interviewed me for the story and aired a fairly decent video explaining my situation. However, the article they wrote that appears beneath the video on their website is so poorly written and full of mis-quotes that it completely misses the point (as shown by the idiotic comments below the piece).

I have spoken with Hugo Benettieri who is the District Aide in the office of U.S. Congressman John B. Larson, who said he would contact FEMA regarding our issues. Hopefully something better will come from that effort.

I'll finish with a quote that is supposedly from a FEMA representative, on a FAQ page filled with resources to help Hurricane Sandy Victims:

"FEMA only provides grants. The grants may cover expenses for temporary housing, home repairs, replacement of damaged personal property and other disaster-related needs such as medical, dental or transportation costs not covered by insurance or other programs. They don’t have to be repaid."

I call BS on FEMA.