After the public responded in outrage to FEMA's collection letters, the federal disaster relief agency is making room for a possible compromise
By LOUIS FLORES
It's been over two years since Hurricane Sandy made landfall and devastated New York City, but the nightmare and torture continues for adult, assisted living residents on Far Rockaway, Queens.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has sent collection letters to residents of Belle Harbor Manor, an adult, assisted-living facility in the Belle Harbor section of Far Rockaway, Queens, demanding the return of financial aid provided to the residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
The residents were evacuated from Belle Harbor Manor after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power and water to the facility, and, as a consequence, FEMA provided financial aid to the residents that could be used for shelter expenses.
After outrage grew over the government's decision not to evacuate nursing home facilities before Hurricane Sandy made landfall, residents were evacuated and transferred to state-run shelters. Since the sheltering of the evacuees did not cost the assisted-living residents any money, FEMA wants its money back, according to a report in WPIX Channel 11 News.
The assisted-living residents live on small, fixed incomes and are unable to repay FEMA what, in some cases, amounts to over $2,000 in aid. Instead of using the money for shelter expenses, the residents say that they used the FEMA aid for clothes, toiletries, and other basic necessities as they were shuttled between shelters, several news reports indicated.
City, state, and federal responses to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy was so slow that activists formerly involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement formed a spin-off volunteer humanitarian effort, code-named Occupy Sandy, to provide relief when agencies like FEMA failed, earning praise from The New York Times. Now, to add insult to injury, what little aid FEMA did provide to some assisted-living residents in Queens, FEMA wants back.
Efforts made very early Monday morning to reach FEMA press officials in Washington, DC, were unsuccessful, as the media team members were first in their weekly Monday morning team meeting and then later remained unavailable.
A statement provided late morning to Progress Queens from FEMA's press office indicated that the federal disaster relief agency is making room to possibly reach a compromise with assisted-living residents, who may be unable to repay the Sandy aid.
"FEMA is committed to being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars and ensuring that eligible applicants receive the disaster assistance they need. We are also committed to ensuring that proper safeguards are in place to make sure federal dollars are correctly spent," a FEMA spokesperson told Progress Queens in a statement, adding that, "Throughout the disaster relief application process, FEMA performs quality checks and audits for payments made in error. Unfortunately, whether through fraud, human or accounting errors, or other reasons, assistance sometimes goes to individuals who are not eligible. FEMA remains committed to working with applicants and ensuring they have an understanding of the options available to resolve their debt, which include making a payment, filing an appeal, requesting a compromise based on inability to pay and establishing a payment plan." (emphasis added)
Since FEMA endures so much criticism following disaster relief efforts, the collection letters were an effort to justify its spending. However, it's unclear if FEMA officials would have or should have consulted the White House for sign-off on collection letters that were certain to meet with public outrage.
MFY Legal Services, an agency which provides legal representation for the poor, is aiding the adult, assisted-living residents in respect of the collection letters, according to the WPIX report.
The Office of the Public Advocate was contacted by Progress Queens, to see if there was anything that Public Advocate Tish James could do to help the residents appeal FEMA's collection letters. Once a response is received, Progress Queens will update its readers.
This article was updated to reflect a late-morning statement issued to Progress Queens by the press office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.