Jan. 18--The Federal Emergency Management Agency is assuring survivors of recent Northern California fires that financial assistance they received will not be taken back as part of the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. bankruptcy settlement negotiations.
FEMA Region 9 Administrator Robert Fenton wrote an open letter addressed to wildfire victims that said FEMA and the state of California have been excluded from settlement negotiations and that the agency submitted a claim against PGE and is seeking reimbursement for the "billions in disaster assistance" that FEMA provided during the fires.
"We have no interest in reducing the funds PGE owes survivors," Fenton said in the letter.
Congressman Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) said in a press release that his office has been working with FEMA, PGE and local governments to make sure that no reimbursement to the federal government will be sought for disaster assistance.
"I commend and endorse and reciprocate Congressman LaMalfa's efforts and admonishments," state Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Red Bluff) said.
FEMA filed three claims on Oct. 17, 2019, for the reimbursement of $3.9 billion for the assistance it provided during the 2015 Butte Fire in Calaveras County, the 2017 fires in Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Solano, Sonoma and Yuba Counties, and the 2018 Camp Fire. FEMA wants to be reimbursed for public assistance, individual assistance and administrative costs, according to its website.
"At this time, there is no impact to the FEMA assistance California wildfire victims received as a result of the California wildfires," FEMA public affairs officer Brandi Thompson said via email.
Fenton said FEMA does want to avoid some survivors receiving compensation for the same wildfire expenses twice.
That "duplication of benefits" violates FEMA's authority and the federal Stafford Act and the agency is mandated to recover those funds.
"Burdens should not be further imposed on the residents that have lost so much," Nielsen said. "The job of government is to help people in these calamitous disasters, not to impose further burdens on them."
According to FEMA's website, duplication of benefits applies when assistance for the same purpose has been received, will be received or when assistance for the same purpose is reasonably available from another source such as insurance or legal settlements.
Nielsen said PGE reimbursements have been in the area of a couple of hundred dollars and he doesn't believe that's a significant amount of assistance to warrant a duplication of benefits.
He said people who have already been compensated and used the money to help in their recovery efforts should not be now hit with a bill. Fraudulent claims should be subject to being recovered by FEMA but what exactly constitutes a duplication is what concerns Nielsen.
"Don't burden people who have already suffered," Nielsen said.
Thompson said she would not be able to comment on specific examples of duplications until the final settlement is reached and said each survivor case is different.
"Under no circumstances should FEMA, PGE or any other entity be allowed to betray their promise to provide much-needed support to wildfire victims," Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA) said in a statement. "I'm working with my colleagues in Congress to push back strongly against this action and ensure that victims of California's recent wildfires receive the support they are owed."
Fenton encouraged people who received federal disaster assistance and are participating in the claim settlement process to work with legal representation to make sure they don't receive duplicate benefits.
Fenton pointed people to FEMA's website that has been updated to address the concerns of fire survivors.
If FEMA is not reimbursed by the PGE settlement survivors will not have to give money back to FEMA unless those survivors have received a duplication of benefits. In addition, those who receive disaster assistance from FEMA don't have to pay the agency back unless a person is found ineligible or gets the same assistance for the same expenses from insurance or another source, according to FEMA's website.
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