Hundreds of Students Told to Give Back FEMA Money

Wesley Hollis, Ashley R. Harris
January 30, 2007

Hundreds of Dillard University dormitory residents who received assistance payments from the federal government after Hurricane Katrina are being asked to repay the money because, according to federal officials, they were ineligible for the aid.

The students, said Rachel Rodi, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, incorrectly received assistance payments because they claimed that the college dorms that were damaged by the storm were their primary residence.

"Students who lived in a dormitory owned or managed by the school will not qualify for housing assistance because dormitories are not considered a primary residence," Rodi said. Instead of applying to FEMA, she added, the students should have first tried to receive compensation for their losses through the school's insurance company, National Student Services, Inc. at the time of the hurricane.

Brandon Carter, a sophomore chemistry pre-engineering major, says he was confused when he received the letter from FEMA.

"When I did my application, I was honest about my losses. I was shocked when I received the letter and showed it to my mother. My initial reaction was to brush it off, yet after speaking with my mom, I realized that actions needed to be taken. Regardless of what FEMA's decision is after my appeal, I have no intention of paying them. I stayed in Module A in the Nelson Modular Complex and lost everything. The money was much in need; I had nothing," Carter said.

"I never received any type of insurance," said Channel Prothro, a former Dillard student. "FEMA was the only assistance I received for losing everything, yet I'm being treated as if I cheated them."

"I am still struggling due to the hurricane, and this FEMA situation is making it worse. It took them two months after the hurricane to give me anything, and now they are asking for their money back? That is just ridiculous for them to be so idiotic."

Rodi, the FEMA spokeswoman, said that the precise number of students involved and the total they would have to repay was not available.

In late July of 2006, FEMA began sending letters demanding repayment because of an investigation in early May of fraudulent claims, said Freddye Hill, Dillard's vice president of campus life. FEMA then began an investigation.

"I received a call from one of the investigators," recalls Hill. "He told me that FEMA had received more than 3,000 applications for assistance from 2601 Gentilly Blvd.," the address of a Dillard dormintory. "The large number of applications from 2601 prompted an investigation," he said.

FEMA has been asking for money back from disaster victims for a number of reasons, even if the agency had already determined an individual eligible for assistance.

According to a statement from FEMA, some of the wrongful payments were the result of the need to provide quick assistance to victims while chaos reigned in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane.

In the disaster setting, individuals might not have completed paperwork at the time of registration or might not have realized that another family member had already registered, according to FEMA's official website.

"During an evacuation, people may find themselves as they did in Katrina with very little but the clothes on their backs for many weeks," reads the FEMA statement. "Assistance from FEMA can make all the difference in those early days when they could not get help yet from private insurance for example. Now that the situation has calmed and victims have had time to receive compensation from their private insurance companies, FEMA expects to be repaid."

Hill explained that some students made unnecessary claims on items that were actually Dillard property.

"The investigator asked questions about what furniture and appliances the university provided in each residential unit because some applicants requested assistance to replace large appliances such as refrigerators and stoves," said Hill. "He said that these claims necessitated information about what furniture and appliances Dillard provided in each room and apartment."

Samantha Knox, a junior elementary education major, said FEMA did not make it sufficiently clear that students might have to repay the aid they received. If FEMA "is now trying to make the money we received ... some type of loan, they should have told us from the start. It's wrong for them to have told us a year after we used the money to replace our lost items," said Knox.

"This is a major concern of the students. SGA, Dr. Hill and Edgar Chase have been working together with FEMA in order to rectify this situation," said the Student Government Association president, Dominique Hayes. Chase is the Dillard vice president in charge of the campus reconstruction.

According to Rodi, students have 30 days to pay the money back in full or agree to an installment plan. But they can appeal the demand for repayment by explaining in writing why they feel FEMA's decision was incorrect. They can, for example, supply additional information, such as a utility bill or any other kind of bill with an address to prove that it was their primary residence.

Hill said Dillard was willing to help the students during their misfortune. "Since October, I have sent FEMA letters on behalf of residential students who resided in university housing in August 2005. If a student needs a letter verifying that he or she resided in university housing in August 2005, I will provide a letter," said Hill.



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