About 140 Belle View Condominium owners received mail from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) last month. Unlike mail received two years ago, however, these letters did not contain checks. Instead the letters are asking for repayment of some of the money given to owners paid out during the flood. Total sum asked for equals $195,799.15.
Glenn Fatzinger is outraged. As the owner of a Belle View condominium, he received a letter demanding that he repay $1,068, about a third of what FEMA paid him two years ago. He was told by both U.S. Rep. Jim Moran’s office and the Belle View Condominium Association that he should repay within the deadline and then appeal if he felt that he had a case.
He was so upset that he wrote a letter to the editor to the Mount Vernon Gazette; it appeared last week and stated, “My daughter and I owned a condominium unit on West Wakefield Drive in the Belle View Condominium area during Hurricane Isabel in September 2003. In October 2003, she received a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to compensate for flood damage to her electric box and for heat pump repairs as well as for being displaced from her residence for three months.
“Now, FEMA claims that at least part of the grant funds duplicated the Belle View Condominium Unit Owners Association insurance and her personal insurance.
Other Belle View Condo Unit owners have also received letters from FEMA demanding repayment of flood relief grant funds within 30 days.
“FEMA's claim was a mistake because Belle View Condominium Unit Owners Association insurance did not cover individual unit owners and did not duplicate other insurance coverage. Such repayment matters were not discussed by FEMA officials at the time of providing flood relief. This demand for repayment of a sizable sum of money within 30 days is a shock to Belle View residents, especially working persons on a limited income.”
FATZINGER DECIDED to pay the money, saying, “I didn’t want them on our back — didn’t want to get tangled up in the bureaucracy.”
He’s not as upset about having to repay the money as he is about the way repayment was demanded.
“My main complaint is that it should have been explained in more detail — they didn’t give a basis for it,” Fatzinger said. “We also should have had more time to pay.”
The letter sent to the owners merely stated, “FEMA has provided you funds as a result of your application for disaster assistance. These funds were provided based upon the disaster related need that you indicated in your application to FEMA. A further review of your case reveals that some of all of the funds the FEMA provided to you must be returned. These funds must be returned because ...:”
A line then indicates the reason, in most cases, it said “Individual and household program duplication of benefits with insurance.”
Yet, according to the FEMA spokesperson Philip Clark, they are requesting repayment of some of the money because when the Office of General Council reviewed the claims they realized that the association’s bylines stated that the association was supposed to have adequate coverage.
“They had a very expensive, but inadequate flood insurance policy,” Clark said. “It did not cover nearly enough.”
FEMA is not saying that there was duplicate coverage, but that because coverage should have been there, they can not cover it.
Austin Durrer from Moran’s office admits that it is confusing, and said that Moran is working with FEMA and Belle View on a compromise to help people get their money. They are also working to get a 180-day extension. The letters that were sent out stated that if repayment is not made with 30 days of receipt of letter, fines will be attached.
Clark, however, said that as long as people call the 800-number to discuss repayment options, that they are covered.
“We want to work with people, not cause them undue hardship,” Clark said. “We gave the money in good faith, but now we realize that the bylaws stated the damage should have been covered. We are only asking for money paid for damage to buildings because that should have been covered by the condominium insurance.”
YET, THE MONEY that Stephen Snell, another owner, was asked to repay was money paid for living expenses. He had to move out of his unit for two weeks because he has asthma and couldn’t stay in the unit because of the lack of air conditioning and mold problems.
Clark couldn’t comment on a specific case without knowing the details but said that the amount may have been over the amount allotted for living expenses since Snell stayed in a hotel instead of an apartment. When asked how one finds an apartment for two weeks, Clark could not comment.
Snell is not planning to repay the money, saying, “I will pay that money back when Hell freezes over.”
He has called the 800-number, but said that he’s gotten “as many different responses as you get people.”
One representative told him that he just needed to send a letter from the insurance company saying that they had rejected his claim; another told him he also needed to send a letter from the condominium association. He is preparing a package now with both letters to send to FEMA.
Belle View has written a letter on Snell’s behalf stating, “Please accept this as a statement concerning payments from the flood insurance policies held by Belle View Condominiums with General Star Indemnity and Lloyds of London in the fall of 2003. Mr. Snell did not receive any payment from the insurance proceeds or from the Association for losses incurred as a result of the flood damage in September of 2003.”
THE ASSOCIATION also distributed a letter to owners stating, “As a follow-up to our letter and posted notice of May 16 concerning the recent letter some of you have received from FEMA, we are advised by FEMA that if the demanded payment is not made as stated the penalties and interest will be applied even though an appeal is being taken. In addition the 30-day appeal period cannot be enlarged. In other words, filing an appeal does not put the debt collection process on hold.
“FEMA advises that anyone affected by their letter can call the FEMA Disaster Helpline at 1-800-621-3362 for further information and help.”
Snell believes that FEMA has serious interrater reliability; in other words one appraiser will go out and award somebody $5,000, while another appraiser will look at a similar situation and only award $1,000.
“Some owners in my building called FEMA and they were given money, while others didn’t get anything,” Snell said. “I appealed and got some more money, but not as much as everybody else. They [FEMA] are totally disorganized — the organization is so large and has to respond on such a vast scale.”
He too is concerned about the lack of explanation, and said, “What insensitivity to send a letter out of the blue to people who have suffered. There was no explanation — it’s hard to figure out what they want.”