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FEMA to demand that hurricane Katrina victims return aid money

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Feb. 26, 2012

Nearly six years have passed since Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans in misery, but many residents haven’t forgiven the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its sluggish response to the storm. Now another delayed reaction by FEMA – a stop-and-start push to recoup millions of dollars in disaster aid – is reminding storm victims why they often cursed the agency’s name.

As a new hurricane season begins Wednesday, FEMA is working to determine how much money it overpaid or mistakenly awarded to victims of the destructive 2005 hurricane season. The agency is reviewing more than $600 million given to roughly 154,000 victims of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma and is poised to demand that some return money.

FEMA already has sent letters to thousands of victims of other disasters, asking them to return more than $22 million. Letters to victims of the 2005 hurricanes could go out in a matter of months, but it’s too soon to tell how many people will be told to repay or how much money is at stake.

The effort isn’t sitting well with victims who spent the money years ago and who could need help again if another powerful storm hits. It’s of little consolation that FEMA says procedural changes since 2005 mean future disaster victims aren’t likely to have to deal with large recalls of cash.

Government forecasters are expecting an above average Atlantic storm season, with three to six major hurricanes that have winds of 111 mph or higher. While no hurricane that strong has made landfall since 2005, forecasters have warned that residents shouldn’t count on that streak to continue.

“When you get these high levels of activity the likelihood of a hurricane striking the U.S. goes up quite a bit,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center in Washington.

Paul Wegener, whose New Orleans home flooded up to the gutters after Katrina, felt short-changed when FEMA gave him a $30,000 grant for a house that wound up costing more than $566,000 to rebuild. He applied for more through the state’s Road Home program but was told he didn’t qualify. The thought of having to return some of his federal aid only compounds his frustration.

“They’ll have to pry it from my dead hands if they try,” the 75-year-old said.

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