Missouri congressman wants to prevent FEMA assistance clawback
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.
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.