Mis­souri con­gress­man wants to pre­vent FEMA as­sis­tance claw­back

The Kansas City Star - - Lee's Summit Journal - BY CRYS­TAL THOMAS [email protected]­star.com

A north­west Mis­souri con­gress­man has in­tro­duced a bill that would pro­hibit the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency (FEMA) from claw­ing back as­sis­tance if it was awarded mis­tak­enly.

Rep. Sam Graves, a Tarkio Repub­li­can whose own farm was in­un­dated by last year’s floods, filed the bill Tues­day after hear­ing the story of a Holt County res­i­dent who was awarded $12,400 by FEMA for his dam­aged home and then asked to pay it back.

The Star re­ported in De­cem­ber that Larry Whet­sel, a 70-year-old re­tired mail­man, was told by FEMA that he did not qual­ify for aid, even though his fam­ily home in Craig was de­stroyed and the agency had paid him.

Whet­sel had ac­cu­rately told FEMA that March flood­ing caused the dam­age. But while flood­ing be­gan in March and water re­mained for months after, Mis­souri

was only ap­proved for in­di­vid­ual as­sis­tance if the dam­age was caused in late April through July 5.

Whet­sel was told that only a pres­i­den­tial par­don could waive the debt. Faced with the threat of penal­ties, he paid back the $12,400 to FEMA in De­cem­ber.

The leg­is­la­tion, the Pre­vent­ing Dis­as­ter Re­vic­tim­iza­tion Act, would al­low FEMA to waive the debt if it was de­ter­mined that the aid was awarded by fault of the agency and not be­cause of fraud.

“The amount an in­di­vid­ual can re­ceive from FEMA in th­ese in­stances is rel­a­tively small in terms of the over­all fed­eral bud­get, but to my con­stituents in North Mis­souri and many oth­ers across the country, that as­sis­tance can be the dif­fer­ence be­tween the road to re­cov­ery and the road to ruin,” Graves said in a state­ment. “To try to take that money back from dis­as­ter vic­tims, be­cause of a mis­take FEMA made, is sim­ply un­ac­cept­able.”

The bi­par­ti­san bill is co-spon­sored by three

Democrats and one Repub­li­can whose con­stituents have ei­ther faced wild­fires in Cal­i­for­nia or hur­ri­canes in the Vir­gin Is­lands.

“Vic­tims of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters in Cal­i­for­nia and across the country have been through hell,” Rep. Jared Huff­man, D-San Rafael, said in a state­ment. “When they fi­nally re­ceive some mea­sure of re­lief through com­pen­sa­tion, the last thing we should do is pile on their trauma by tak­ing away those funds.”

Reached by phone Tues­day, Whet­sel said he has yet to tear down his old house or retrieve his pos­ses­sions.

“Ev­ery­body is still hurt­ing,” Whet­sel said. “...they are hav­ing to do every­thing on their own.”

After Whet­sel’s or­deal with FEMA, he re­mained skep­ti­cal that the bill would pass or fix is­sues with dis­as­ter as­sis­tance.

“I have lost all con­fi­dence in our govern­ment,” Whet­sel said.

The bill will be marked up Wed­nes­day in the House Trans­porta­tion and In­fras­truc­ture Com­mit­tee, where Graves is the rank­ing Repub­li­can.

RICH SUGG [email protected]­star.com

Larry Whet­sel’s home in Craig, Mo., was ex­ten­sively dam­aged dur­ing a flood last March. FEMA awarded him $12,400 then forced him to pay it back.

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