The federal agency claims these residents were ineligible for funds to rebuild homes damaged by earthquakes and hurricanes María and Irma.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is sending collection letters to 3,913 residents of the island who received funds from the agency to rebuild their homes after hurricanes Irma and María, and the recent earthquakes still affecting Puerto Rico’s southern region.
FEMA has said these individuals are ineligible for aid or misused the funds they were awarded.
The federal agency confirmed to Primera Hora they are collecting funds they had provided to 23 residents affected by Hurricane Irma, 3,677 by Hurricane María, and 213 by earthquakes.
According to Juan Andrés Muñoz, FEMA external affairs officer in Puerto Rico, disaster assistance must be returned if there is evidence of duplication of benefits.
“This means when the agency provides funds that were already available or previously received from another source,” Muñoz explained to the newspaper. “For example, funds 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.”
The official also explained FEMA could have approved the aid in error. The agency is also considering cases of fraud from the submission of false information or documents.
Residents have 60 days to appeal the agency’s decision, as stipulated by the agency’s collection letters, also known as Notices of Potential Debt.
“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 said.
The center may also grant debt exemption in some cases, the official said.
Muñoz said issues can sometimes be resolved by providing additional documentation to support the claim.
To that point, Emily Colón Albertorio, executive director of the Institute of Practical Education (IEP by its Spanish initials) of the Puerto Rico Bar Association (CAAPR by its Spanish initials), pointed out FEMA’s inconsistency when requesting documents, a situation that can create confusion.
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“In the cases we’ve examined, we’ve seen how FEMA is sometimes inconsistent,” Colón told Primera Hora. “The agency will in some cases accept certification regarding property from the Department of Housing or local municipalities, while in others cases people are told this documentation is not enough.”
The lawyer said many older people do not understand the situation because FEMA sends their communications in English. He added that many are unclear as to which documents they need and how to obtain them.