Dec 06, 2019 3:53 PM

FEMA takes $12K check back from Missouri flood victim

Posted Dec 06, 2019 3:53 PM

MODOT photo of the flooding in Holt County


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The washer and dryer are still in Larry Whetsel's living room, where they landed after floating out of his kitchen.


The water line left by the Missouri River, across the warped, cracked walls, is level with his shoulders. Pieces of furniture, some made by his father, lay in a jumble in the dining room. Luckily his long johns, stored at the bottom of a chest, soaked up the flood water, saving a military burial flag nestled on top.


A calendar remains on the month of March, the last time the retired northwest Missouri mailman lived there, reported The Kansas City Star.


Considering the condition of his 100-year-old house in Craig, Whetsel, 70, wasn't too surprised when a $12,400 check from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) appeared in the mail in July. The money was for the time he spent displaced from his home, and to help with repairs.


Months later, however, Whetsel was incredulous. He learned FEMA, which inspected his home and saw the destruction, wanted him to pay the money back or face garnished Social Security checks.


The agency's reason? His home was not damaged by the flood. FEMA came to this finding despite a March 22 photo from the New York Times website that shows Whetsel in chest-deep water trying to get through his back door.


"If that wasn't it, then tell me: what was it?" he said, standing on the barren floors of his living room where he has ripped up the mildewed carpets.


And the kicker: Local emergency management officials say Whetsel's debt, should he not pay FEMA back, could have only been fully erased through a presidential pardon.


Whetsel is one of a handful of Missouri flood survivors caught in the bureaucratic tangle caused by two different disaster declarations.


In March the river, already riding high, spread out over miles of northwest Missouri after snow melt from the upper basin broke through dams and punched holes in levees. The town of Craig in Holt County, where Whetsel lived, was encouraged to evacuate.


The Missouri State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) the state-level disaster responder, applied to FEMA for assistance to help residents of five counties flooded out between March 11 and April 16.


That claim was denied, along with an appeal.


"After a thorough review of all the information contained in the initial request and appeal, we reaffirm our original findings that the impact to the individuals and households from this event was not of the severity and magnitude to warrant implementation of the Individual Assistance program," Pete Gaynor, FEMA's acting administrator, wrote in a two-paragraph denial letter.


FEMA did, however, pay out $8.7 million in federal flood insurance claims covering that time period from Atchison and Holt counties. Whetsel said he didn't carry such insurance because his house had never been flooded and he considered the annual payment too expensive to make in one lump sum.


The flooding continued through the spring, adding to the first wave of devastation. Rain and more snowmelt poured into the Missouri and parts of the Mississippi. Half of the state was under water at one point.


FEMA later approved an application for the period covering April 29 to July 5 for residents of the northwest Missouri counties, and several others, to receive aid from the individual assistance program.


But by April 29, the only standing water in Whetsel's home was in the storm cellar, he said. That's because after the first flood, Craig residents built a berm to keep the river from surging back in.


On his application to FEMA, he entered March 20 as the date he was flooded out.


"I'm not going to lie and I shouldn't have to lie," Whetsel said.


Local officials and lawmakers said FEMA's criteria for individual assistance are ridiculously opaque. That's not the case with the public assistance program, which pays for governmental costs such as infrastructure repair. It required Missouri to show $9 million in statewide damage to be eligible, a threshold it met.


U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri's junior senator, asked Gaynor at a November hearing to explain how FEMA determines which areas are eligible for individual assistance.


"This is a question I get at home all the time and frankly one Missourians want to hear about," Hawley said.


Gaynor told Hawley FEMA assesses every disaster "on its own merits" in order to be "fair and objective."


According to state officials, FEMA looks at the number of uninsured homes and private residences that sustained damage when evaluating eligibility for individual assistance.


What exact number of homes FEMA is looking for, or what percentage, is a mystery, according to SEMA Director Ron Walker.


"Trust me, I wish I knew (the number," Walker said in an interview.


In 2018, Congress passed a law that allows FEMA to give greater consideration to local impact, allowing those living in sparsely populated rural areas like northwest Missouri a better chance of receiving individual assistance.


The entire Missouri Congressional delegation sent a letter to FEMA last week, asking how it was implementing the new law.


"With these difficulties in mind, we ask for FEMA to provide detailed information into how 'greater consideration to severe local impact or recent multiple disasters' in accordance with (the new law) is objectively defined and measured," the delegation wrote.


In early November, Rhonda Wiley, the Atchison County emergency management director, said she hoped Whetsel wouldn't have to pay FEMA back for what she considers its error.


Sitting in Wiley's Atchison County office with a stack of letters from FEMA in front of him, Whetsel pets Wiley's dog, an energetic brown Deutsch Drahthaar named Peach. A mailman who served the county for decades, he's a favorite among the dogs that remember his treats.


Wiley told him that under the 2018 law, the president of the United States can waive any debt if the money was mistakenly paid out by FEMA, as long as the matter is contested within 3 years.


She recognized a presidential pardon to be novel and untested.


"If this is what we have to do get Larry help, I'll go all the way to the White House," Wiley said, at the time.


However, Whetsel couldn't afford to take a chance. He had all but drained his savings to buy a new house on higher ground, further away from the river, in Fairfax. On Friday morning, he put a $12,400 check in the mail to FEMA.


"I had no choice," Whetsel said. "I can't afford the penalties."


Whetsel now needs to decide how to move forward with his destroyed home. It's been in his family since he was five years old. Though most of the ruined walls are bare, a framed saying his mother hung after his father died still remains in the living room: "When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure."


Floods are expected next year, and though he often chuckles through his struggles, the past year has worn him out.


"This has been the year from hell," he said.


He plans to spend the next couple of months tearing his Craig home to the ground by hand. The only help the 70-year-old can afford is himself.

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