FEMA sending specialists to Big Island to help resolve eruption relief issues

HILO — Victims of the 2018 Kilauea eruption who were told to return federal disaster relief funds will have a chance to meet with specialists next month in an effort to resolve the matter.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, with support from the county, will bring the specialists to the Big Island from Aug. 5-9.

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They will meet with individuals who initially received disaster aid but this summer were sent letters seeking reimbursement by FEMA because they might have been ineligible for assistance.

Potential reasons for ineligibility can include duplication of benefits, assistance provided in error, misuse of funds and fraud.

FEMA is required to review disaster assistance payments after every disaster.

According to a news release from HI-EMA, the specialists will explain eligibility decisions, answer questions and collect documentation that might assist in clearing an individual’s debt.

In June, 77 of the 1,002 disaster relief applicants approved during the eruption were asked to return some or all of their payments following routine evaluations.

FEMA spokeswoman Veronica Verde said that number is now down to 69.

“As we get in touch (with) applicants, we’re able to resolve some of those issues,” she said.

But instead of trying to address issues “over the phone, from miles away on the mainland,” Verde said FEMA is going to Hilo to meet individuals in person to see if some of the outstanding matters can be resolved.

The eruption, which started in May 2018, destroyed 716 homes and structures.

“It’s always important just to try and support the survivors,” said FEMA spokesman Robert Barker, adding that there has been some confusion with the agency’s individual assistance program, which is why FEMA is sending the disaster case managers.

Diane Ley, director of the county Department of Research and Development and Kilauea recovery manager, said the county’s Kilauea recovery team is “very pleased to have FEMA specialists come in to work directly with those who received the debt letters.”

“This is really certainly an opportunity for impacted residents to learn more about what triggered the letter,” Ley said. It also is a chance for these individuals to “face-to-face work with a FEMA specialist to resolve their case.”

Those who are not under consideration for reimbursement but who have questions, may ask for an appointment and will be seen, time permitting.

Interviews will be conducted from noon-8 p.m. Aug 5-9 at the Keaau Armory, 16-512 Volcano Highway.

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Appointments can be made by calling 961-8366.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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