PUNA, Hawaii Island – Dozens of eruption victims who received federal disaster aid must now document their eligibility, repay any unqualified awards or risk possible criminal prosecution.

“Basically, the onus is on me to prove my innocence,” said Paddy Daly, who is among 77 people the Federal Emergency Management Agency recently told to return money paid to compensate personal losses related to the 2018 Kilauea eruption.

“I won’t do it. I refuse,” Daly said when asked if he will give back the $3,027 he spent on housing costs after his Leilani Estates home was deemed temporarily unsafe.

“Now the disaster is over, so here’s a new disaster in your life.”

Leilani Estates residents evacuate their belongings as lava inundates their community.

Many Big Island residents evacuated their belongings as lava inundated their community during the 2018 eruptions. FEMA has asked at least 77 residents to repay or document their eligibility for cash assistance they received after the disaster.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

FEMA responded to Hawaii’s largest eruption in 200 years by paying $11.7 million to a combined 1,002 people, according to its website.

Following every disaster, FEMA is required by law to review assistance payments, FEMA spokeswoman Brandi Richard wrote in an email. It’s part of FEMA’s “obligation and commitment to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars” by ensuring money was spent properly, she said.

“Each applicant must agree to return funds to FEMA when the assistance provided by FEMA duplicates assistance from another source, was provided in error, was spent on expenses inappropriately, or was obtained through fraudulent means,” Richard said.

People deemed to be ineligible received collection letters dated mid-April – one woman told Civil Beat she didn’t get hers until June 20 after a FEMA representative had called to inform her verbally – that gave them 60 days to document compliance or to file a written appeal.

“These reviews ensure taxpayer dollars were provided in the correct amount to meet the needs of the individual,” states the one-page letter, electronic images of which were provided to Civil Beat.

No request for repayment is specified, but the letter adds, “reasons you may have a potential debt are included below.” Examples included “occupancy not verified” and “ownership not verified.”

“The letter itself is a request to repay the money unless you appeal,” Richard said.

Those with questions or wanting to discuss their case are urged to call FEMA’s toll-free number 1-800-621-3362, she said.

Local recipients, some of whom lack an official address because they live in unpermitted structures and receive mail at a post office, said they feel mislead and victimized for a second time by the agency charged with providing emergency relief.

“It’s like you’re guilty,” Samantha Smith said.

Smith said she fortunately had a Wi-Fi account with statements saved electronically, which she resubmitted to FEMA.

While the eruption destroyed four buildings and much of her fruit farm, Samantha Smith would not have accepted $5,000 in disaster aid if there was any chance FEMA would want it back.

Courtesy of Samantha Smith

“They absolutely said it was a grant that I did not have to pay back,” Smith said of the $5,045 in FEMA money she spent on replacement housing after the 6-acre fruit farm she leased and was preparing to buy was largely destroyed.

“I would never have agreed to (accept) rental assistance if I had any idea I’d have to pay it back,” she said.

Smith said she’s hopeful of being deemed eligible, noting she has no way of reimbursing FEMA.

“It seems like a blatant scam to get money back,” she added.

Opihikao resident Larry Bragg Jr. said dealing with FEMA has been worse than enduring the eruption itself.

“This whole process has been exhausting, stressful, seemingly a waste of my valuable time, beyond ridiculous and adds insult to injury repeatedly for such a minor amount of assistance …,” Bragg Jr. wrote in an email detailing the $2,293 he had accepted for rental assistance.

Bragg Jr. said he appealed June 10 by resubmitting the same information given previously.

“As you can see, just reiterating this over and over is very stressful and certainly is not helping in my personal recovery and rebuilding my home and land,” he said.

“Beyond ridiculous” is how Kilauea Larry Bragg Jr. described FEMA’s demand that he reprove his eligibility for federal aid.

Courtesy of Larry Bragg, Jr.

Local help is available from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, said Ali Slous, Hawaii County’s Kilauea Disaster Recovery Program coordinator.

“We’re all interfacing with residents to try to support them because it’s stressful,” Slous, who is one of the disaster victims, said of FEMA’s repayment demands.

Many of those affected lived nontraditional lifestyles that prevented them from furnishing the required documentation, she said.

“We’re just trying to sort it all out,” Slous said.

The 100-plus-day eruption covered more than 13.7 square miles in molten rock, destroyed 716 residential structures and displaced more than 3,000 people, according to the county’s website

Some, like Smith, are rebuilding what’s left of their land and feel the timing of FEMA’s repayment demand is heartless.

“I think it’s unneeded stress, unneeded burden when we’re just coming to the point of starting to recover,” she said, adding later her letter arrived June 20.

Smith questioned why FEMA is going after people who received relatively small amounts of aid when she hears frequent stories of others who accepted tens of thousands of dollars while remaining in their largely unscathed homes.

“We don’t know how to fool the system,” she said. “We’re just trying to do our best to play by the rules, and we’re the ones getting these (repayment) notices.”

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