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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

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Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. PRYOR. Mr. President, I want to talk just for a few minutes about an incident that is unfolding in Arkansas, and that I am sure is unfolding in other States as well.

Less than 2 weeks ago, a 73-year-old woman and her husband received a letter from FEMA, where FEMA demanded that this couple pay back $27,000 in FEMA assistance they had received 3 years earlier, and that they do so within 30 days or face penalties, interest, et cetera. Well, this was devastating news for her. These are Social Security recipients. They lost everything in a flood.

But let me back up and tell the full story, and then tell the rest of the story. Three years ago, Arkansas had some floods on the White River, and the folks in the Mountain View area, some of them, experienced very severe flooding. FEMA actually came to this couple's house, walked around, and told them on the spot they were eligible to receive FEMA assistance for the flooding. The maximum you can receive is $30,000. So they filled out the paperwork.

In fact, FEMA helped them do some of that, like I said, on the spot, while FEMA was visiting their home and looking at their property. FEMA assured her they would qualify for this assistance. So they filled out the paperwork and they went through the process.

Apparently, at some point, there was even an appeal or some sort of clarification. So it went through the proper channels at FEMA. Remember, FEMA was there, they took pictures, and the whole deal. They verified the damage. So this couple received $27,000 in FEMA assistance.

They put every dime back into their home. This is a couple who basically lost almost all their worldly possessions in this flood. I talked to her a week or so ago, and she told me they were able to save a few items of glassware and a few keepsakes from the family, but basically everything was either washed away in the water or so caked with mud it was ruined during the flood. The $27,000 helped repair their home and make it habitable, but it didn't restore their home anywhere close to the condition it was before the flood. This was their dream home--their retirement home. They live right there on the White River. It is a beautiful part of the State.

So they got this letter a couple of weeks ago. Now, bear in mind this flood happened 3 years ago--the flood happened 3 years ago--and they are now required, under the rules and regs and the law that FEMA works with, to pay all this money back. As I said before, this is a terrible hardship.

As it turns out, what happened is these folks, although they were assured by FEMA they were eligible, they were actually never qualified to receive this money. They didn't know that. They had FEMA in their living room telling them they were qualified and they should receive the money; that they met all the tests and standards and that is what this program was for, to help people like them. However, there was one technicality, and that was that the county in which they lived had not passed an ordinance to go into the FEMA flood insurance program. Here, again, FEMA should have known this.

FEMA apparently went to some of the county meetings where it was discussed and voted down. But, nonetheless, FEMA assured these people they would be covered under this program.

The irony of all this is that the couple, when they bought their home on the White River, one of the preconditions or requirements they set for themselves was they would purchase flood insurance. They had it for a number of years. They paid premiums for a number of years. They never experienced a flood, but they paid premiums for a number of years.

Finally, the insurance company that offered the flood insurance got out of the business, and so they even went to the extent of going through Lloyds of London to get flood insurance. They paid a lot of money for a premium, but they, nonetheless, carried that as long as it was offered. Finally, it wasn't offered any longer, and the only thing left was the FEMA National Flood Insurance Program. But because the county had not done what they were supposed to do, this couple, therefore, was not eligible to receive the FEMA flood money--again, no fault of their own. They had done everything anybody could do. They had paid their premiums out of their pockets as long as they could, as long as they could find insurance, and as that was canceled over the years, the county hadn't come through. But, apparently, FEMA was actually there at the county meetings and knew, or should have known, this couple wasn't eligible. Yet they gave her this money, and now they want it all back with penalties and interest, et cetera.

So I have filed the Disaster Assistance Recoupment Fairness Act, and we actually have it in two forms. We have it as a stand-alone measure, and we also have it as an amendment to the bill that is pending on the floor right now.

The important point of this story is that all of the mistakes that were made were on FEMA's side of the equation. The couple in Arkansas made no mistakes. They followed the rules, went through the process, went through the hearings. There is no allegation of fraud or that the couple in any way misled anyone. They gave them the documents and did everything they were supposed to do. It was textbook. They did everything they were supposed to do, but FEMA is now coming back and asking for recoupment.

So our bill will not give a blanket exception, but what it will do is give the FEMA Administrator the authority, under circumstances he deems fit, to waive the debt that is owed to the United States in cases where funds were distributed by a FEMA error, as in this case.

Also, it gives them the discretion that they do not have under current Federal law.

I met with Director Fugate on this a week or two ago, and actually we had a very constructive meeting. I think probably on a personal level he understands this. He feels bad about this. But he believes his hands are tied under the statute. I am not 100 percent sure they are but he says they are. He tried to be very helpful, very accommodating. I think he does want to work with all the parties involved to try to clean this up. But he says he does not have the authority.

That is where this bill comes in. We wish to give the FEMA Director the authority to have some discretion on some of these hardship type cases, especially where the person who received the benefit did it purely by a FEMA error. Again, in their case, they put every dime of their recovery back into their home to have it livable. Otherwise they probably would have had to abandon their home or sell the property or whatever the case may have been.

That is what we are asking of the Senate, if they would consider this at the proper time. I ask my colleagues to take a look at it. My guess is, since we have 35 households in our State that are receiving these types of letters from FEMA, these demand letters where they are giving a notice of debt to folks who have received money, my guess is if we have 35 in our State there are hundreds and maybe thousands around the country in a similar situation.

Again, our bill is just for FEMA's mistakes. This is probably an example of the cleanup from the previous FEMA administration. I think Director Fugate had nothing to do with this. It took them 3 years because there was a lawsuit in the meantime.

What this is doing is creating a hardship for folks who had been playing by the rules. It gives FEMA the flexibility to do some of the cleanup in a way that doesn't harm ordinary citizens here in the United States. I ask my colleagues to take a look at it. I would be pleased to answer any questions. If anyone has those, they can always contact me in my office. What I wish to do is not call it up at this point or anything like that but maybe be in the queue and be available at sometime in the future.

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