HILO — Nearly 80 Kilauea eruption victims have been told to return federal disaster relief payments after a federal agency determined they might not have been eligible for the funds.
Brandi Richard, public affairs officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, confirmed that 77 of the 1,002 disaster relief applicants approved during the 2018 Kilauea eruption were asked to return some or all of their payments following routine evaluations.
Richard could not confirm how much money is being requested back in total because of the ongoing nature of the evaluation and appeals process. But while she acknowledged the situation is unfortunate, she said it is not unusual.
“We’re not happy to have to ask people to do this,” Richard said. “But this happens with each disaster we respond to.”
One such case is that of Leilani Estates resident Shannon “Smiley” Burrows, who was asked in March to return $16,630.82 in rental assistance and personal property reimbursement to FEMA after determining Burrows’ Kapoho home destroyed in the eruption was not her primary residence.
“My case is a really odd scenario,” Burrows said, explaining that, had the eruption not occurred, she intended to sell the Leilani home immediately after completion of the Kapoho home, making the Kapoho home her primary residence. However, she was ordered to evacuate her Leilani Estates residence at the onset of the eruption, fleeing to an only half-completed home in Kapoho.
The Kapoho home was then destroyed by lava, and Burrows returned to the Leilani residence after the restricted zone around the community was lifted.
After the end of the eruption, Burrows attempted to prove the Kapoho residence was her primary residence, but was unable to do so. Despite that, FEMA awarded Burrows approximately $12,000 to reimburse lost possessions and another $4,000 in rental assistance.
Then in March, Burrows received a letter from FEMA warning that she “may not be eligible” for the full funds because “FEMA’s records indicate the damaged home was not (her) primary residence where (she) lived the majority of the year.”
“I was really upset and so disgusted that I honestly just threw the note to the side and didn’t look at it for a while,” Burrows said.
Burrows already spent “every penny” of the funds, and said she thought the funds she received were separate from the primary residence issue. She also said there was no indication that there was a possibility the money might be reclaimed.
However, Richard said every recipient of disaster relief funds is informed in a letter upon receiving the money that the funds might be expropriated following a mandatory review of disaster assistance payments.
Richard said those asked to return the funds all have the option to appeal their cases, which Burrows said she intends to do.
Burrows said her case is an outlier among the others she has heard about. Most other cases only have people on the hook for “a couple thousand,” instead of more than $16,000.
Another Leilani resident, Karen O’Brien, said she received about $3,500 from FEMA, all of which might have to be returned. O’Brien said FEMA did not have sufficient evidence that she lived on her now-destroyed property.
“It’s hard to prove we lived there, though, because we were completely off grid,” O’Brien said. “We only had our TMK.”
Diane Ley, director of the county Department of Research and Development, said the county’s eruption recovery team has only encountered three refund cases, but each one was referred to state recovery officers to work through the process.
“It’s important to note that each case is unique,” Ley said. “But the thing is that these are government funds, so we have to respect that.”
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.