HUNTINGTON STATION - FEMA is asking hundreds of New York Sandy victims to pay back relief money it says it overpaid or improperly disbursed, and those who don't come up with the funds can be hit with penalties and garnishments.
The disaster relief agency says it is looking to collect more than $14 million from some 2,000 New Yorkers. More than 500 of those cases have already been sent to the U.S. Treasury for collection.
If people do not pay in full within 30 days of being notified by the Treasury, it can charge up to 30 percent in interest fees.
Thomas Gartland, of Huntington Station, is one such Sandy victim. He says he'll never forget the sound of an enormous tree crashing down on his home. He applied for numerous relief grants, and was awarded $7,400 from FEMA, but recently FEMA demanded the money back plus interest.
"They tell me you either pay now or we are going to take a chunk of your Social Security, we are going to take 15 percent of your Social Security payment," Gartland recalls.
He appealed, but was denied, and then the Treasury Department garnished his Social Security checks. He couldn't understand why, because he says he used the money for storm cleanup.
"This is the power of government being applied to little guys," he told News 12.
Eventually, with the help of some specialized disaster relief attorneys from Touro Law School, the federal government decided to reverse its decision and forgive Gartland's debt all together.
But experts say there are probably many other Long Islanders in similar situations with the federal government unnecessarily.
Daniel Strafer, of Touro Law School's disaster relief clinic, says hundreds of Long Islanders are now receiving so called "clawback" letters from FEMA demanding return of grant money. He says FEMA is not doing a good enough job researching the grants and are threatening already hard-hit storm victims.
"When they give the grant money out, there needs to be greater scrutiny that the applicant meets the criteria set by FEMA," Strafer said. "And if the error is determined to be FEMA's error there shouldn't be a clawback."
According to federal law, disaster grant money cannot be used for costs that would otherwise be covered by insurance or other assistance programs. FEMA can recoup money if it finds that benefits were duplicated.
A FEMA spokesperson told News 12 that it fully researches all grants and does everything it can before it refers the debt for collection by the Treasury.