A Simple FEMA Release May Heighten Hurricane Victim Anxiety

Jerry Ashworth
November 27, 2018 at 11:05:33 ET
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Years ago, while working with another employer, I had an office manager who was known for sending out “friendly reminders” to the office staff, which truthfully were less of a friendly reminder than a pointed warning if anyone on the staff failed to follow company policies. We tended to shutter each time we saw the words “Friendly Reminder” in the e-mail subject line.

Let’s expand this concept now to the federal level. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently issued a release to several Florida counties devastated by Hurricane Michael with a “friendly reminder-ish” headline, “Use Disaster Assistance Grants Wisely.” The release goes on to say that for Hurricane Michael survivors in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Leon, Liberty, Taylor, Wakulla and Washington counties that recently received a disaster assistance grant, “it’s important to remember the funds may only be used for specific disaster-related expenses.” Frankly, there’s no real need to use the phrase “it’s important to remember,” as these funds need to be used appropriately.

According to the release: “When FEMA awards a disaster assistance grant, it sends the recipient a notice listing approved uses of the grant. The message pinpoints precisely how the funds can be spent. Expenses must be directly related to losses, damage or temporary living expenses caused by Hurricane Michael. Disaster grants may not be used for travel, entertainment or regular living expenses such as utilities, food, medical or dental bills not related to the disaster.” At this point, one tends to wonder what led to the issuance of such a release, and whether the agency is discovering instances of misuse of the disaster funds (and how many such instances).

FEMA goes on to say that “rental assistance grants are provided for temporary housing when a disaster leaves your home uninhabitable or inaccessible. If you intend to seek continued rental assistance, you’ll need receipts to show you used the grant for rent.” Also on the theme of receipts, FEMA adds: “After every major disaster, FEMA may conduct random audits to see how the grants are actually spent and can require repayment if funds were not spent appropriately. Survivors are advised to keep their receipts for three years to document that the money was used on approved disaster-related expenses.” One tends to feel for individuals who may be struggling to get their lives back together after experiencing the devastation of a hurricane, a loss of their home, the need to depend on federal assistance, and now the potential threat of an audit and the need to store three years of receipts to show the auditor.

I don’t fault FEMA for issuing this release as it is important that recipients of federal funding comply with the requirements to ensure the funds are used properly. Still, when faced with such hardships, this release — while written in a seemingly helpful manner — may present an ominous tone to those who are really in need.