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Mobile Press Register: FEMA still bumbling more than 6 years after hurricanes

Staff Report

Sometimes you have to wonder if FEMA learned anything from devastating hurricanes such as Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

More than six years later, FEMA is still making the lives of hurricane victims more difficult than necessary — this time by asking 83,000 people to pay back money the agency now says they shouldn’t have received.

Granted, it’s a lot of money — $385 million in total. But it’s a little less than 5 percent of the $8 billion FEMA paid to people who sorely needed it at the time.

Anyone who committed fraud to get money from the government when true victims were left homeless fully deserves to be caught and prosecuted.

And it’s true that FEMA was urged by this editorial board, among many other critics, to err on the side of quickly helping people who were suffering — the idea being that the agency could catch up on the paperwork later.

During the aftermath of Katrina, in particular, FEMA earned a reputation for an inept, bureaucratic response that will not be improved by going into the debt-collection business.

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If overpayments were FEMA’s own fault, or if the people FEMA thinks owe money now can’t pay it back, the agency should show both compassion and common sense.

Instead, FEMA sent out letters to people like David Bellinger, who now lives in Atlanta. He’s blind and gets by on a Social Security disability check. FEMA wants him to pay back more than $3,200. He couldn’t even read the letter.

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