FEMA wants $8,000 back from 80-year-old Gulfport woman

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Imagine for your 80th birthday, you receive a letter from FEMA demanding $8,000 in repayment for a Katrina grant you received almost six years ago. That's exactly what happened to a Gulfport woman, who lives on a fixed income. Her modest home still isn't completely repaired from the damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina.

Lubertha Haskin says she has every intention of fighting back, because she feels she did nothing wrong.

"When they sent the letter, I almost laid it aside. And then I thought, 'I better open this letter.' And when I did, I didn't know what to think," Haskin said.  "I just know I was really upset, I'll tell you that."

She's upset because the agency wants her to return almost $8,000 the government gave her. FEMA now claims she received repair money from her insurance company and wasn't eligible for a grant.

Still the government check came, Haskin said.

"It was their mistake, not mine. I didn't lie to get any money. I will say this, I do not lie."

Attorney Beau Cole is representing Haskin for free, and is confident she'll prevail.

"I feel that it's a strong case, because Ms. Haskin was, thankfully, able to retrieve some of her insurance documents, which we feel like show and prove that the money that FEMA paid was used and given to her for a totally different purpose than the insurance proceeds that she received from her private insurance company," Cole said.

When you look at the legalities involved in the demand letters FEMA sent to thousands of people across the central Gulf Coast, Cole says there's really one word that comes to mind.

"It's just unfair. There's no other way I can say it," Cole said. "It's unfair that so much time has lapsed, so many of her potential rights that she could have exercised if the government had taken action earlier have now fallen by the wayside."

If she doesn't win, does Haskin have the money?

"I don't. No where near $8,000," Haskin said. "If I had $8,000, I would have finished my house. No, I don't."

Cole said the process of appealing through FEMA will take several months, and he does not rule out a court challenge if FEMA rules against Ms. Haskin.

In December, Congress approved legislation that would allow FEMA to waive the debt for somebody who earns less than $90,000 a year if the money was mistakenly awarded due to an error by FEMA. A debt involving fraud cannot be waived.

President Barack Obama has already signed the measure into law.

FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen told the Associated Press last month that the agency is reviewing the law's provisions and developing a plan to implement them.

"It is important for any individual who has received a recoupment notice to know that these letters are the start of a conversation with FEMA, not the end," Racusen said.

FEMA's collection efforts aren't limited to Katrina victims. The agency has mailed out more than 6,000 debt letters to survivors of other recent disasters, including floods.

Approximately 2,500 recipients, including 930 victims of the 2005 hurricanes, have appealed their debt notices. FEMA says about 30 percent of those appeals successfully erased at least some of the debt. Recipients also can ask for a waiver due to economic hardship or seek to set up a payment plan.

Anyone with questions about the recoupment process, including appeals, can contact FEMA at 1-800-816-1122.

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