WASHINGTON—When Hurricane Katrina walloped the Gulf Coast nearly two years ago, Nora Watts fled New Orleans for higher ground like everyone else.
Like almost 2 million other evacuees, the Dillard University junior applied for disaster aid. She received two checks totaling $2,358, which she used to buy clothes and pay rent on an apartment.
Now the government wants its money back.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency began sending letters last summer to students who received aid, claiming they were ineligible and threatening prosecution and financial penalties if the money wasn't returned.
Watts, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and is now a student there, said students were encouraged to seek the aid by their schools, the media and FEMA itself. She said she was flabbergasted by the repayment demand.
"Everything I was hearing was, `You need to sign up with FEMA,'" she said. "I felt like I was taken advantage of. They never presented it like we would have to pay it back. I thought this was money for people who were displaced."
Some members of Congress are angry that FEMA, which by all accounts botched the response to Katrina, is trying to impose financial guidelines on the disaster grants long after they're out the door.
"I've questioned FEMA, `Why did you keep sending checks?'" said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. "We couldn't get a good answer. We asked, `Was there a means test? Now you're doing a means test after the fact.' It's one of the most ridiculous things I've seen with regard to how the government handles tax dollars."
At a committee hearing in New Orleans, Cleaver told Gil Jamieson, FEMA's deputy director for Gulf Coast Recovery, that he thought the letters were "a terrible public relations blunder."
"I agree," Jamieson said.
FEMA officials have said they've changed the heavy-handed tone of the letter, but still want the money. Spokeswoman Ashley Small said the letters are a standard practice when the agency determines that disaster money was wrongly spent.
Small was unable to say how many college students received aid or how much FEMA was demanding in repayments. But she said FEMA doesn't generally award disaster aid to students who are displaced because college dorms and apartments aren't their permanent residence.
David Garratt, FEMA's acting director of recovery, told a House Financial Services Committee hearing in February that if students living in dorms when the hurricane struck applied for aid, "we sent them $2,000 expedited assistance." If the students returned home and their families also received similar aid, FEMA would seek repayment of the student's grant, he said.
Congress has been trying for more than two months to get answers from FEMA about the aid sent to Watts and other students. Cleaver and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the Financial Services Committee, sent a letter last week to FEMA Administrator David Paulison seeking more details.
The agency has been under a cloud since the hurricane. Even its inspector general concluded that its response was slow, ineffective, ill-prepared and disorganized.
As of February 2006, the agency had awarded $6 billion in disaster payments. A Government Accountability Office report last summer said that $600 million to $1.4 billion was improper and possibly fraudulent.
Watts, 22, fled Dillard when Katrina struck in August 2005 to stay with a cousin in Baton Rouge, La. She applied for disaster aid and received a check for $300. She spent it on clothes.
"I only came to Baton Rouge with a little bag," she said. "I didn't get to my things until the end of November."
Then Watts received a second check for around $2,000. She said she thought it "was supposed to pay rent." That's when she decided to return to Kansas City.
A psychology student now at a Kansas City community college, Watts used the FEMA aid to rent an apartment. She plans to attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City in the fall.
"They didn't say anything that would give the impression that I was going to have to pay," Watts said.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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