Wednesday, February 8, 2023

FEMA wants its money back from Oak Hill fire victims

November 2, 2012  

Doug Todd sits in his wingback chair, one of only a handful of things that was saved after the Oak Hill fire.

by Joanne Foote

A year and five months after the Oak Hill fire, one couple is still feeling the lasting effects from that devastating day. Janice and Doug Todd, who lost their home in the fire on April 17, 2011, lacked homeowner’s insurance, and were unable to rebuild right away.

Initially they had to sort out title issues on their home, which took a year to clear up. During that time, they were told they could apply for funding from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). They were approved, and things began looking up. By last July, they were finally able to begin the rebuilding process.

Then, the other shoe dropped. Just as the Todd’s were beginning the move back into their home in early October, they received a letter that sent them into a new tailspin.

“I received a letter from FEMA, saying they did an audit, which indicated we were not available for the grant—the grant we had been approved for over a year ago and for which we had already received, and used the monies to help in our rebuilding process. The grant was for a little over $30,000,” stated Doug Todd.

“A year ago, September 2011, we applied for assistance under FEMA, after being advised to do so. When we applied over the phone, I told them the incident date of the Oak Hill Fire, which was April 17, 2011. I asked them ‘Are you sure we are covered under the Disaster Declaration, because we lost our house on April 17, 2011?’  The FEMA representative told me ‘Yes, you are covered,’” stated Todd.

“Soon after, they sent out an inspector to look at our house. When the inspector read the report, it had Aug. 30, 2011 as the incident date. I told them ‘That’s not right, our incident date is April 17, 2011.’  And they said, and I quote: ‘Don’t worry about it, the disaster declaration will cover you.’ Upon the inspection, the property was declared a total loss and we received a check from FEMA, with portions of money to cover both temporary housing and for rebuilding,” Todd explained.

“A week later, we had a call for re-inspection. When she came out, I asked what is the purpose of the re-inspection. And the inspector said it was because they had seen some walls standing in the photographs that the first inspector took. Again I asked ‘Are we due this?’ She said, ‘The disaster declaration covers it. I will file my report that it is a total loss even though there is a wall standing.’ We waited a week or so and then we officially put that money into a building account at the bank, which was set aside strictly for the rebuilding process—we wanted to track the money,” said Todd.

“This news has been devastating to us, both physically and mentally—just frazzled us. I don’t know of any other way to put it, but we feel like we’ve been violated one more time, if that makes sense. First the fire and loss of property, then the year-long legal battle over the title and now this, just when we are moving in and thinking we can finally put this all behind us,” Todd said.

The Todds filed an appeal, which has been verbally denied, but they are waiting for an official letter to come in the mail for confirmation. “I made my appeal in person. I felt like if they knew who they were talking to, what kind of person I am, that it might make a difference. But it didn’t seem to matter. My question to FEMA is this: ‘If this had been your mother or father, would their response have been the same?’ We both know the answer to that question,” Todd said.

“In the letter, it says they can garnish my wages, Social Security, go after us anyway, in any possible way once this is turned over to IRS, to recoup their money,” said Todd.

Todd contacted the office of Congressman Lloyd Doggett for further assistance. “According to Lloyd Doggett’s office, FEMA has made these kind of mistakes many times before. Doggett’s office did not promise anything, but they did say they would look into the situation. I spoke with him directly and Mr. Doggett said he would contact the Washington office and personally look into it and see if it can be forgiven. I don’t anticipate that though. I just wonder if there will be a way of finding out how many mistakes FEMA has made,” Todd added. In addition to contacting Doggett’s office, Todd also emailed Governor Perry’s office, but hasn’t heard any response.  Doggett’s office was unavailable to respond to requests for more information due to closures in Washington, D.C. from Hurricane Sandy.

“I don’t want anything that we are not due. I just feel like by asking and asking and asking FEMA representatives ‘Are you sure that we qualify?’ and pointing out to the inspectors that the date on their paperwork was wrong, that I did my part. If they had come back within 30, 60 or 90 days and said, ‘Hey wait a minute, there is something wrong with this,’ that would have been reasonable, but for a year to have passed, and now tell us is like a kick in the gut,” said Todd.

“All they had to do was go on the Internet and look up my house with the dates and see when the incident happened, and yet it takes them one year and one week to make this decision? We never tried to hide anything,” he added.

“I don’t happen to have $30,000 laying around to pay them back. If I did, then I wouldn’t have applied for the grant. They want it all back at once, or will charge interest. If I wanted to make arrangements to pay it out, I would have to share with them my bank account, 401K, any property I own, and our other obligations and they would tell us how much our payments would be based on my age. However, I don’t feel comfortable giving them all my information. How do I know that they will be using if for that purpose, especially since they didn’t get the first part of this right?” said Todd, skeptically.

The cost for the Todd’s to rebuild was approximately $70,000. The house was an empty shell after the fire. New roof trusses, framing, plumbing and wiring had to be installed, much of which brings the house up to current code. The home was originally built in the early 1970’s.

“I have kept all the receipts and we had a separate bank account so that we could track the expenses. Some of that money came from the Oak Hill fundraisers, some from a trust fund my brother started, some from our own money.” The Todd’s also received assistance through Home Depot, where he is employed. “We received help through the Homer Fund from Home Depot. It is set up to help employees in disasters. It actually comes in the form of purchases, such as the cabinets in our new kitchen,” he added. Todd has kept all the receipts, should FEMA or anyone else wanted to see how the money was spent.

Some changes were made to the floor plan from the original. Previously, the Todds’ home was configured with four small bedrooms. However, since the burned out studs and roof had to be replaced, the Todds had an opportunity to make some changes in the plan, making the home three bedrooms. “We made some changes now that it is just the two of us, including features which will accommodate our current and possible future needs, including walk-in showers and 36” wide doorways, should my wife or I have a change in our health that requires a wheelchair,” said Todd.

It took a little over 90 days to rebuild the home. A general contractor was hired to help streamline the process, and keep things within budget. The rebuild work began July 5, 2012. “Our contractor, Mark Maroney, is a cowboy angel as far as I am concerned. He helped us immensely with lining up help for the rebuilding process and also with keeping within our budget. Things like the drywall were supplied at no charge, which made the money we had go further. In addition, our kitchen appliances came from a gentleman near Lake Travis who was remodeling his home with new appliances, so he donated the second-hand appliances to us—refrigerator, oven/stove, dishwasher, microwave. The appliances were still quite good and were going to be donated to Goodwill or some similar organization,” said Todd.

“Of course, my wife shopped garage sales, and Habitat for Humanity’s Restore, for fixtures. She was very careful about how to stretch that dollar. Much of the furniture we now have was either donated or found at yard sales and Goodwill,” Todd explained. “We have a used bed, but it is new to us. We found a dresser at a yard sale and refinished it. All the donations we received from all over really helped us out,” he added. The Todds’ church also proved to be a great resource as well as other community churches. “Our church, Life Austin, helped us tremendously. The church community has helped support us, not just with resources, but with emotional support as well,” Todd said.

“It’s been difficult, because I have found myself at times in total tears. I know I shouldn’t feel that way, but this one has been a tough one for me after everything else,” said Todd. The Todds were one of two fire victims in the Oak Hill fire whose homes were not covered by homeowners insurance. The two homes, both of which were badly damaged in the fire, were paid for in full and insurance is not required in those circumstances. Todd confirmed that his home is now properly insured.

The Todds are in the midst of sorting through boxes of the few salvageable things, which had been hurriedly packed up right after the fire. “We have found some photos, but some are damaged from the water, stuck together.” He said only a few pieces of furniture survived: the television, a small bed and two wingback chairs, which the Todds had purchased shortly before the fire.

“The chairs were almost brand new—the first bit of furniture we had bought new in many, many years. The rest of the furniture was so damaged from smoke and water it was unsalvageable. That is physically about all we were able to save,” stated Todd.

The FEMA media office for the Texas region was contacted, but due to confidentiality, is only able to supply this general statement regarding coverage for the Oak Hill fire:

“Travis County was not included in the major disaster declaration for DR-1999, which was declared for Public Assistance only. The incident period for DR-1999 was April 6, 2011, to Monday, August 29, 2011. (writer’s note: Public Assistance refers to help with Public Structures, such as schools.)

FEMA did approve a Fire Management Assistance Grant (FMAG) for the Pinnacle Fire in Travis County. The incident period for the FMAG was Sunday, April 17, 2011, to Tuesday, April 19, 2011. However, a FMAG covers 75 percent of eligible firefighting costs (see attached fact sheet), but does not include Individual Assistance.

The incident period for DR-4029—the second major disaster declaration for wildfires in Texas in 2011 —was Tuesday, August 30, 2011, to Saturday, December 31, 2011. Travis County was eventually added to DR-4029, which did include Individual Assistance.

However, because the fire in the Oak hill neighborhood took place before August 30, by law, the damages generally are not eligible for federal assistance. Following a disaster during which disaster applicants receive federal assistance from the government, a small percentage of disaster applicants may receive overpayments and payments improperly paid due to human error or other problems. Federal agencies are required by federal laws, including the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 and the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act of 2010, to take action to identify and recover any improper payments.

This process is an important part of our obligation and commitment to be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars and to guarantee proper safeguards are in place to ensure that federal dollars are correctly spent. The process of auditing applications and payments take time to complete due to the volume of applicants from across the country. Any resident who received a letter from FEMA telling them that they owe the government money, can:

• Ask for a payment plan;

• Ask for a compromise of the debt;

• File an appeal; or

•Pay the amount due in full.

For residents who file an appeal, the agency will consider the facts and circumstances of the case.”

Todd, who will be 70 at the end of November, explained it like this, “I’m of an age that I don’t want to be worried about how to pay for my house. I don’t want any bills, aside from things like utilities and general living expenses.” Todd works 40 hours a week at Home Depot, “I was planning on slowing down now that we are back in the house, but with this latest news, now I can’t afford to. The only way I can come up with that money is to dilute my 401K, which I had set aside to take care of my wife and myself. It’s not a lot of money, and taxes will have to be paid on it when I pull it out.  My advice to anyone ever dealing with FEMA or any other government agency, get a copy of everything they do in writing or a video or voice recording.

“Janice and I have been hoping for the best, but planning for the worst and I know in our case, we are simply ready to go on with our lives not being stressed out. All I want is what’s fair. I want a decision and somehow, we’ll take care of it. How, I don’t know yet. The silver lining is that we are back in our house, sleep in our own bedroom, and are getting back to our routines. We survived and our three cats survived.”




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