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May 11, 2011

Flooding and FEMA

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Mr. PRYOR. Madam President, I will speak in morning business for 10 minutes or less. Let me talk about a couple things this morning. First, I wish to talk about something my State has been going through since mid-March and has continued to the present day. We have been battered by tornadoes and high winds and now flooding. We see this in a photo that was taken a few days ago, late last week, of one of the areas in our State underwater. We have had many towns that have been evacuated, many counties have been declared disaster areas. In fact, the Corps of Engineers showed me a map on Friday when I met with them. They have a map that is a large overview that starts down near Dallas, TX, pretty much through all the State of Arkansas, then a little bit of Missouri and Tennessee and Illinois and even, I think, a little bit into Kentucky.

The folks in those areas in that oval have received six times the normal rainfall. When we have six times the normal rainfall, this is what we get. This is a photo where we can see the water is in the house and up on the front porch. These folks are underwater, similar to a lot of people in our State.

I will say this. The Governor of our State is doing all any Governor can do. He is doing a great job. Even though we have Interstate 40 underwater right now in one area where the White River goes under Interstate 40, they are trying very hard to get that open, maybe even today if the water will cooperate. We are seeing a lot of emergency response in our State, seeing neighbor helping neighbor, churches are rolling out, we have seen folks doing everything they can to make this work.

Also, I thank the Corps of Engineers. It is easy for us to beat up on the Corps

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of Engineers sometimes, but the truth is probably 95 or more percent of the time they do things right. They do things the right way. If it weren't for the Corps of Engineers, a lot of east Arkansas would be underwater and maybe a lot more. The system they designed and built has worked. Even though this is a 100-year flood or even worse, it is working and it is saving billions of dollars in damages and hardship. I thank the Corps and I also thank FEMA. FEMA has been on the ground in Arkansas for 3 or 4 weeks now, probably, with different teams going around the State helping in different ways and they have been very helpful.

I wish to go to my second topic, and I wish to emphasize what we are seeing happening in the State right now is not impacted by what I am about to talk about. But I think this FEMA administration is still cleaning up some of the mess from the previous FEMA administration. A few years ago, we had another series of floods in our State. Now we are seeing FEMA trying to recoup that money against people in our State. Let me give a little background.

Three years ago, in an area around Mountain View, AR, the White River flooded. FEMA came and they actually went to a woman's house--I wish to talk about her and her husband. They went to this couple's house. They are on Social Security. They retired. FEMA assured them they would be eligible for assistance. FEMA took pictures. They verified the damage. They gave them the paperwork--even kind of coaxed them through some of the paperwork. They assured them repeatedly that they would qualify for some assistance from FEMA.

They did end up getting $27,000 for home repairs and that is exactly what they spent it for. They played by the rules. They filled out all the paperwork. FEMA was physically on their premises. They got the check, plowed it right back into the house, exactly like they said they would, and it helped them stay in their house.

Fast forward 3 years. We see FEMA writes them a letter, what I would call a demand letter, where they are requesting that they repay all this money, that they have 30 days to repay the balance of the debt they owe FEMA. This, of course, is a big shock to them because they were assured, repeatedly, that they had a legitimate claim. FEMA encouraged them to file this claim, they got the money, and they thought everything was great.

What has happened is, this couple, similar to many others in our State, built their home down on the river. They knew it could possibly flood one day. When they built it, they bought flood insurance. After years of paying the flood insurance, it never flooded. But after years of paying the flood insurance, the flood insurance company said they would not cover flood insurance anymore. They actually went to Lloyd's of London and paid for that for a number of years. Eventually, Lloyd's of London said: We are not doing flood insurance anymore. They desperately tried to find flood insurance and could never find it.

FEMA has a rule that in order for anyone to get flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program, the county or the city has to pass an ordinance. That is necessary in order for them, the people in the community, to get flood insurance. FEMA knew this particular county, Stone County, had not passed this ordnance. Nonetheless, they assured this couple, repeatedly, they were entitled to this money. So in a very real sense, these people and many others in our State are twice the victim. They are the victim of the storm and the flood, but then they are a victim of their government because their own government has injured them by the way they have handled all this--giving out the money and then demanding recoupment for the money 3 years after the fact, when they get the notice of debt.

FEMA, by the way, did not just send it out to this one couple; they sent it out to 35 families around the State. Three years later, when they get this notice of debt, they have no means to pay it back. These folks are on Social Security. In fact, they would not have qualified for the payment had they had substantial resources. So one of the ironies is, what we are doing is we are telling the poorer people they need to pay FEMA back. The poorer folks owe FEMA the most money. That is the way the program works.

I think if we had Director Fugate, who again I think is doing a good job running FEMA--if we had him here today, I don't know exactly what he would say about the situation, but I think he would say the statute ties his hands, and he doesn't have much flexibility under the statute. Whether he agrees with the hardship of the situation or the equity of the situation, he doesn't have a lot of leeway in trying to deal with this. I am offering a solution. I am offering it in the Homeland Security Committee this week. I hope Members of the Senate will look at my legislation. It is only four pages long. We are asking Congress to give FEMA some flexibility when it comes to the recoupment process and to allow leniency for some individuals under certain circumstances. I think our couple in Arkansas fits those circumstances exactly. Basically, they have played by the rules, they have done all they can do and they continue to play by the rules and do all they can do.

I filed a bill that is going to be in the Homeland Security Committee this week. I would love to have my colleagues look at it and support it, if they see fit. It does three things. No. 1, it says FEMA may waive a debt owed to the United States in cases where funds were distributed purely by FEMA error, which is the case here, because FEMA knew this particular county had not passed this ordinance. FEMA knew no one in this county was entitled to any assistance under this particular provision of the disaster relief law because the county had not passed the ordinance. FEMA knew that for the entire county. In fact, they have a list of every county--every ZIP Code in the country where people do not qualify. This woman of the couple from Arkansas was very clear about her location as she went through this process.

FEMA, whether they admit it--we can produce the documentation--FEMA was clearly in error in giving out this check, in assuring her she was entitled to it, and assisting her through this process. They were clearly in error. I think it is a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

Again, I think this FEMA administration has cleaned up this problem. My guess is we will not see this type of problem in the future, especially not out of this FEMA administration.

The second thing it does is it says they have to waive a debt owed to the United States in cases where the rationale for recoupment was failure to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program. Again, what this will do is acknowledge that FEMA made some mistakes 3 years ago. It is kind of competence 101 that they would know which counties and which residents would be entitled to this particular relief, but somehow, some way, they dropped the ball. This would make it very clear, from 2005 to 2010--again, this is the limited duration of this bill, this is a relief bill to help a specific group of people--that because of FEMA's mistake and because the folks here could not participate in the flood insurance program, no matter how much they wanted to--and this particular couple did want to participate in the FEMA flood insurance program, they could not do it--this would basically say we cannot now punish them and come back on them for that money.

The third thing it does, it makes clear that Congress is not giving any waivers in cases of fraud or misrepresentation or false claims or anything of that nature. This is purely for mistakes and errors made by the Federal Government when the Federal Government is trying to come back in and recoup moneys they wrongly paid.

Let me run through a couple other things, and I will be glad to yield the floor in just a few minutes. These communities that have not passed this ordinance and, therefore, are not entitled to participate in the flood insurance program, they are called sanctioned communities. That is what FEMA calls them. They are called sanctioned communities. There was a lawsuit a few years ago that basically challenged FEMA's ability to do certain things. It is too long and involved to talk about, but the court found there are 168,000 cases. Mostly these go back to the hurricanes of Katrina, Rita, et cetera--the biggest bulk of them. Of the 168,000 cases that FEMA has to revisit and

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maybe recoup some money from people, so far they have only done 5,000 of these cases. Out of the 5,000 cases they have reviewed, only 18 cases, 18 total out of 5,000--out of 5,500 cases--would be impacted by my bill.

So we are talking a very small percentage. We are talking three-tenths of 1 percent is what we are talking about here. This is a very tiny, very narrow exception. I am for recoupment as much as anybody. I think it is very important that the government do it right and do it right the first time. If there is some sort of fraud or some sort of misrepresentation, then the government absolutely should go after that money and try to recoup as much of that as possible.

What we are talking about here is in 99.7 percent of the cases they can pursue recoupment. But based on the numbers we have today, it is three-tenths of 1 percent of the time where the mistake is completely on FEMA's side of the equation, and we would say no, as a matter of fairness and as a matter of equity, then they cannot seek recoupment in these cases.

To me this is a matter of equity. This is a situation where this particular couple in Arkansas--and we have other couples, we have other families too--we know of a total of four in our State who fall into this category. So we only have four out of how ever many thousands have received FEMA payments over the years. But nonetheless, this is a matter of equity because if you look at this couple I am talking about here in Arkansas near Mountain View, they basically would never have done this. They would have made other arrangements 3 years ago.

I do not know if they would have gone to the bank. I do not know if they would have gotten a second mortgage. I do not know if they would have sold the property and moved out. I do not know. They do not want to think about it. Because this FEMA check actually allowed them to stay in their house.

Now they are coming back in a worse condition than they were before because FEMA says, you have 30 days to pay this back. The fact they have not paid it back yet and that they filed an appeal with FEMA to try to work this process to get some relief, which FEMA, apparently, very seldom if ever grants--the fact that they filed this paperwork means that they have a little extension on the principle load. But it is very clear from the correspondence from FEMA that now interest is accruing. So interest is accruing on these folks.

Again, I think they are in a worse situation today than they would been had FEMA said no 3 years ago as they should have done. To me this is a matter of equity. I think if we were in a court, you might use the word estoppel. I think the Federal Government should be estopped in this situation from pursuing this money, because there was detrimental reliance on the part of the family.

They did not ask for this. FEMA showed up at their house. FEMA took pictures. FEMA helped them fill out the paperwork. FEMA walked them through the process. They do exactly what they are supposed to do. They put it in the house. It saves their house and gives them the ability to stay there. And now 3 years later, they get a letter basically saying, notice of debt, you owe FEMA $27,000. Well, you can imagine, this is devastating for a family on Social Security who has very few other means. Again, if they qualified for this in the first place, you know they are not high-income folks. And $27,000 at this stage of life for them is a lot of money. It is a mountain that is too tall to climb.

What I would love for my colleagues to do is look at what we are going to offer in the committee. I hope you can support it. We will be glad to answer any questions if any of my colleagues want to talk about it today or in the hallways here in the Senate over the next couple of days as we are working through this.

I certainly want to thank Senator Lieberman for allowing us to put it on the markup. I think folks around here rightly are in a recoupment mode. They want to recoup money that has been wrongly paid out. And, again, I am for that 100 percent. In fact, we had a hearing in one of the Homeland Security subcommittees the other day about recoupment. We have talked about this. This is very important that we stop the bleeding and the government not pay out more money than they should. But in this particular case, I think the principle of equity and fairness is certainly on the side of these folks who again, as I said, are twice the victims. They were first victimized by the storm, and second they are victimized by their own government.

I yield the floor and I suggest the absence of a quorum.

(Senate - May 10, 2011)

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