Imagine being a federal agency that is supposed to provide help and support for victims of natural disasters in their time of need, and when one such victim—a deserving recipient who survived Hurricane Katrina—applies for and receives such aid, you come after him 12 years later and begin garnishing his check to get the money back.
This is what happened to Gregory Allen Jr. When Katrina brought destruction all throughout New Orleans in August 2005, he was a college student with a scholarship at Xavier University. The school had to postpone its fall semester because of the extensive damage, and WUSA9 reports that 1 in 4 students left the school and never came back.
“I lived in anarchy,” Allen told WUSA9. “There was no government. I couldn’t go to school. Like, what could I do? If I would have stayed in New Orleans, I would have died.”
Allen moved to Washington, D.C., where his twin brother lives. He enrolled at Howard University to continue his biology degree, and because he no longer had the scholarship he had while at Xavier, he turned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help.
“So they asked like, ‘What did you have?’” Allen told WUSA9. “What did you leave down there? What is missing? And like, I told them ... and three weeks later, they cut me a check.”
Allen said that he received about $10,000 from the agency, and he used it to buy new clothes, a new computer and pay for on-campus housing at Howard.
Allen moved on with his life, and 12 years after the hurricane that left him with a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, he received a letter from the Department of the Treasury in February 2017, telling him that it was collecting the relief money back from him. He owed a total of $12,203—the original $10,000 he was given plus a 28 percent penalty the department assessed for having to collect the money from him in the first place—and the agency was going to begin garnishing his wages to get the money.
The Treasury Department said it had tried unsuccessfully to contact him about the debt in 2013 but got no response after sending mail to at least two different addresses it had for him.
“FEMA decided that the funds that they gave me, I was ineligible for,” Allen told WUSA9. “I lived through Hurricane Katrina, but I’m ineligible for these funds. I lost everything, but I’m ineligible for these funds. I have PTSD, but I’m ineligible for these funds. I don’t even understand how they just arbitrarily chose this.”
Allen was told that he was ineligible for the funds he had received, but he was not given a reason as to why he has been deemed ineligible. When neither FEMA nor the Treasury Department could give him a straight answer, he turned to WUSA9.
Investigative reporter Erik Flack began making phone calls on his behalf, and eventually, FEMA arranged for Allen to receive a phone call on a Friday night.
It was on that call that Allen learned that he was considered ineligible for the funds because FEMA was not supposed to have given funds to college students who applied through the method he used. To put it another way, Allen unwittingly used the wrong application process, and FEMA did not catch the error, but now that it has, he is being penalized for it.
To make matters worse, because FEMA had already transferred the debt to collections, Allen could not appeal the finding.
In response to a request for comment, FEMA sent a statement to WUSA9 that read: “FEMA reviews disaster-assistance payments to ensure those payments have been properly awarded and appropriately spent. Whether through human or accounting errors, duplication of benefits, fraud, or other reasons, assistance sometimes goes to individuals who are not eligible.”
WUSA9 reports that while FEMA did not respond to questions about how often this type of thing happens, federal oversight offices say improper and potentially fraudulent payments after Katrina total between $600 million and $1.4 billion.
FEMA told Congress in a 2011 report that it has put in a new system of checks and balances that has drastically reduced the problem of improper payments.
Read more at WTSP 10 News.