PUERTO RICO – The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) manages collection actions for some 3,913 people who, after passing the Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and the earthquakes in the south, they received aid to rebuild their homes, but the entity claims today that they are ineligible or, in some cases, that they misused the amount granted.
The agency confirmed to Primera Hora that it requested the return of the aid granted to these 3,913 people: 23 of them for Hurricane Irma, 3,677 for Hurricane María and 213 for the earthquakes that affected the southern zone.
The FEMA External Affairs officer in Puerto Rico, Juan Andrés MuñozHe explained that there may be several reasons why the agency requests the return of the aid granted.
“Disaster assistance must be returned when there is evidence of duplication of benefits. This is when the agency provides funds that were available or previously received from another source, for example, from an insurance company or another federal agency, or when multiple applicants from the same family receive an allowance for the same item or type of item. assistance”Muñoz detailed.
It also ensures that there are cases where FEMA approved the assistance, but “it was a mistake because the applicant was not eligible” or when “funds are misused. For example, using assistance to pay a credit card debt ”, the official explained.
Another reason for requesting the payment of assistance in Puerto Rico is that the agency understands that there was a possible fraud.
“That happens when the applicant obtained the assistance by false means; for example, with a false address, submitting false or altered documents, falsifying insurance coverage, among others, ”Muñoz said.
According to the FEMA spokesperson, once the federal agency determines that an applicant received assistance inappropriately, it sends the Notice of Potential Debt and it is up to the applicant to “carefully read and appeal the determination,” for which they have a term of 60 days. .
“If the applicant does not appeal, or appeals without success, the debt is certified at the FEMA Finance Center, where the debt collection process is carried out”, Muñoz specified. However, he said that “under certain circumstances, the FEMA Finance Center may grant a debt waiver.”
“In many cases, these issues can be resolved by providing additional documentation to support the claim. Applicants can call the Fund Recovery Help Line at 1-800-816-1122. Hours are Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm (EST). They can also call the FEMA Helpline at 1-800-621-3362. There are Spanish-speaking operators available, ”Muñoz reported.
Free legal help
The graduate Emily Colon Albertorio, executive director of the Institute of Practical Education (IEP) of the Puerto Rico Bar Association (CAAPR), establishes that FEMA has been requesting the payment of aid to people who are entitled to receive it. In turn, he complained to the agency for its inconsistency when accepting documents, which ends up creating confusion.
“That the agency is requesting money recovery from people who did qualify, that is a fact. With the cases we have examined, we have seen that FEMA is sometimes inconsistent. That for some people they receive the certification from the Department of Housing or the municipality about a plot and others tell them that this is not enough “, said the lawyer.
Colón Albertorio pointed out that the IEP does not have an exact number of cases that have required legal assistance due to the FEMA charge, but it does affirm that the number of people affected is greater than the expectations they had.
“At first we thought there were not so many, but the number of people who have come have been quite a few. It surprises us because there are many people who were in this situation since 2019 and had not sought help. That makes the work of lawyers more difficult, “he explained.
The lawyer said that there have been cases in which citizens used the funds to repair their homes and have no way to return it. Others who live in parcels granted by Housing or by the Municipality, but they are their residences, so the licensee establishes that the main problem is which documents are accepted by FEMA when claimants submit their applications.
“They (FEMA) have guidelines and regulations that establish what documentation is acceptable and, if some people are accepted and not others, then they destabilize the processes,” said the attorney.
“There are people who are telling us that all (FEMA) communications have been in English and that they don’t understand the process. Agency communications must be in the language of the person to whom they are writing. That is a right that covers people “added.
According to Colón Albertorio, these processes for collecting aid granted in disasters have had the greatest impact on vulnerable populations. Therefore, the lack of resources and ignorance of the processes makes it even more difficult for citizens to seek alternatives to challenge these agency decisions.
“We are seeing many elderly people who do not know how to defend themselves, they do not know how to look for documents. We are not only facing the legal and administrative situation of FEMA, we are facing the face of vulnerable populations, the elderly, poor people, people who do not have access to aid and the aid granted by the agency is being requested ”, said the lawyer.
The IEP is offering free legal assistance to people from whom FEMA has claimed partial or full refund of their disaster assistance.
“The important thing for citizens is to seek help as soon as they receive that letter. We are making every effort to educate and we are calling on citizens to take timely action so that our attorneys can give them the maximum. Already when the case has been referred from FEMA and was referred to the Treasury Department, it is already a collection action like any agency, so the procedures are different and it is rather to make payment plans, justify that it does not have the means, “he explained the lawyer, who stressed that the claimants have until tomorrow, December 18, to request free assistance, as the entity will have an operational recess.
Colón affirmed that many of the requests made by FEMA are due to the lack of documents that support the request, so with being oriented correctly and sending the required documents, the agency desists from collecting that money.
“On many occasions these collection requests have a remedy, that is why it is important that they call and go to request legal assistance … We have the legal assistance service and we are also in alliances with other organizations to support people with inspections, among others. matters “, finished Colon.
To receive free legal assistance, you can call 939-545-4550 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm It is worth mentioning that you will be receiving calls until tomorrow, Friday, December 18, as there will be a Christmas break. But in January, a date will be announced to reopen the lines to the public.
We recommend you
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.