Federal report details how FEMA overpaid employees in Harvey's aftermath

By Mario Diaz - Reporter

HOUSTON - Hurricane Harvey's wrath left challenges everywhere. However, after the rain stopped, the challenges remained.

It is difficult to find a silver lining in the aftermath. It's what countless families dealt with post-Harvey.

Tracey Wilson, like so many others, continues to deal with Harvey's aftermath. Channel 2 Investigates learned her family has lost everything as a result of the floodwaters that overwhelmed her home in Meyerland. She says her losses still have not been made whole by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "I've gotten $20,000. I have a proof of loss for $86,000."

Wilson, who lives in Meyerland, still hasn't moved home. She said, "It's to the point of absurd."

She needs money.

Teresa Atwell does not. That said, she still received $500 from the FEMA-authorized Critical Needs Assistance program. As she told Channel 2 Investigates in the aftermath of Harvey, "I didn't apply for it, so why would I be getting a $500 check, right?" As others were underwater, Atwell’s home in West University Place was high and dry. "We got nothing, (the water) didn't even come over the curb."

Atwell never cashed the check, but others took advantage, including FEMA employees who were overpaid by the government. The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General recently released a special report detailing how FEMA employees received more than $1 million they didn't earn in 2017.

 

 

 

Wilson’s take? ”It's just ridiculous that they are so worried about paying us to make us whole again, and then this is going on."

The report found FEMA overpaid its employees because it mistakenly believed Homeland Security would automatically prevent overpayments. That didn't happen. The reports also states "FEMA did not follow its own premium pay policy."

Aside from being “extremely frustrated” upon seeing the report Channel 2 Investigates obtained, Wilson says, "It's par (for the course) for FEMA. I'm not surprised."

In 2017, FEMA overpaid 148 employees a total of more than $1 million. The report criticizes FEMA for not having a reliable system to determine the kind of work employees are doing during disasters or their status under the law and for failing to provide guidance on who qualifies for overtime.

As for who picks up the tab?

"We do, the taxpayers, of course. Unfortunately,” says Emily Marlowe, a Houston-based storm attorney. Marlowe, who has dealt with FEMA in past storm experiences, adds, "I think it's more to do that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing."

Channel 2 Investigates asked Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner for his reaction on the report. He said, “I know that there are a number of people out here that are still hurting.”

Turner, who was front and center before and after Harvey, is also making it clear that "all of these dollars are important."

Turner wasn't the only one questioning the million-dollar mistake. U.S. Rep. Al Green spoke to Channel 2 Investigates as well, saying, "We don't enjoy having to look at these kind of things."

Green said we need more checks and balances. "These are the kind of things that oversight should prevent."

As Green calls for changes in oversight, change isn't coming to Wilson's life anytime soon. "I haven't signed their proof of loss, because they disagree."

Wilson says she is on her third appeal. Her message to FEMA is a simple one: "Don't come in and say everything is going to be OK and you are going to take care of it when you are not going to."

The report found overpayments during all the hurricanes and wildfires of 2017. FEMA plans to make sure each employee’s status is clear in future disasters to avoid overpayments. What remains unclear is whether employees who were overpaid will be required to pay the money back.

FEMA did not make anyone available to Channel 2 Investigates for an interview.

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