6 years later, Katrina victims fight FEMA debts

When the Federal Emergency Management Agency mailed out 83,000 debt notices this year to victims of Hurricane Katrina and other 2005 storms, one of the letters showed up in David Bellinger’s mailbox. Bellinger, who is blind, needed a friend to read it and break the news that FEMA wants him to pay back more than $3,200 in federal aid he received after Katrina.

“I nearly had a stroke,” recalls the 63-year-old, who moved to Atlanta after the storm wrecked his New Orleans home. “I’m totally blind. I subsist entirely on a Social Security disability check. If I have to pay this money back, it would pretty much wipe out all the savings I have.”

Many other Gulf Coast hurricane victims are in the same position, angry and frustrated at the prospect of repaying money they spent years ago as they tried to rebuild their lives.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the recoupment process is flawed. Many debt letters have been returned as “undeliverable,” meaning some people moved and don’t even know they owe money, he said.

“Most of these individuals went through a lot of trauma,” Thompson said. “For our government to all of a sudden say, ‘We made a mistake, you owe us money,’ that’s not how it should be done.”