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The agency admits it erred in sending checks to some 5,500 who were not eligible.
Published May 11, 2011

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - The Federal Emergency Management Agency is asking thousands of Americans who were victims of natural disasters to return more than $22 million in government aid, acknowledging it mistakenly made payments to many people who were ineligible.

FEMA is required by law to recover improperly spent money, but most of the people who were helped say they used the cash years ago, and they don't want to be financially punished because of the agency's errors.

"It literally felt like everything is being taken away from me again," said Cedar Rapids resident Justin Van Fleet, whose home was filled with 13 feet of water in 2008 by the raging Cedar River. "It's like going through the flood again," said the 28-year-old call center worker.

Documents obtained by the Associated Press show that FEMA is seeking payments from more than 5,500 people who were affected by 129 separate disasters since 2005, including floods, tornados, hurricanes and other calamities from Arkansas to American Samoa. The agency is still reviewing records, and more repayment requests could go out soon, including to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA admits the payments were largely its own fault - the result of employees who misunderstood eligibility rules, approved duplicate assistance for costs that were already covered by insurance or other sources, or made accounting errors. But the agency is still obligated to try to recover the money.

"We are committed to being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars," spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said.

People who are asked to make repayments may appeal the matter, apply for a hardship waiver of the debt or establish a payment plan.

Responding to the situation Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas introduced a bill last month that would give FEMA discretion to waive debts in cases involving agency mistakes. It will be considered today by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security.

"I think most people would see this as a matter of fairness," Pryor said.