EDITORIAL: FEMA and equity

By NEMS Daily Journal

A decision by the inspector general of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to seek repayment of disaster assistance allocated at least in part after FEMA’s internal mistakes has appropriately raised concern in Congress about fairness and equity in the wake of government error.
The Associated Press reported this week that FEMA is seeking repayment of emergency funds from 5,400 people in 129 separate disasters since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
An earlier published report placed the number of individuals potentially impacted by FEMA reviews at 160,000 and the total to be recouped at more than $643 million.
FEMA admits some of the payments it seeks to nullify and recoup were caused by its own errors.
Sen. David Pryor, D-Arkansas, filed a bill Tuesday night and spoke in support of waiving the repayment demands in relation to issues involving the federal flood insurance program, a broader issue high on the priority list of Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, both Mississippi Republicans.
The effective date of the Pryor bill, significantly, is Aug. 28, 2005, the day before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts and many areas inland.
The proposed statute specifically excludes fraud from any waiver of repayment.
One consideration is the dire financial stress under which many applicants received disaster relief, with most payments plowed into repairing or replacing residences or other allowed spending. If unfair repayment is demanded by FEMA, some of the recipients could be put into the same kind of stress they were in when the assistance was granted.
The payments, it should be remembered, were public funds, in part supported by the taxes paid by the recipients.
Cochran had his staff reviewing the proposed legislation on Wednesday. Spokesman Chris Gallegos said the FEMA issues had been discussed this week.
No one knows precisely how many of the cases to be reviewed would fall under the protection of Pryor’s bill, but the intent seems fair, balanced, and equitable.
Pryor said most recoupment probably is fair and justified, as did Cochran’s office, but both support waivers in cases that are not fair and rise fully from government error.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Cochran’s office said 47 Mississippi cases had been identified in the reviewed 5,400 cases, and 13 of them are from Alcorn County. However, only one Mississippi case so far would fall under Pryor’s bill, and that is in Warren County.
Getting it right involves timely renewal and actuarial soundness for the Federal Flood Insurance Program, and precision in determining who is wronged by FEMA’s demands.