The residents of Belle Harbor Manor spent four miserable months in emergency shelters after Superstorm Sandy’s floodwaters surged through their assisted-living center on the Rockaway peninsula.
Now, the home’s disabled, elderly and mostly poor residents have a new headache: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked at least a dozen of them to pay back thousands of dollars in disaster aid.
Robert Rosenberg, 61, was among the Belle Harbor Manor residents who recently got notices from FEMA informing them that they had retroactively been declared ineligible for aid checks they received two years ago in the storm’s immediate aftermath. The problem, the letters said, was that the money was supposed to have been spent on temporary housing, but that never happened because the residents were moved from one state-funded shelter to another.
FEMA gave Rosenberg until Nov. 15 to send a refund check for $2,486 or file an appeal.
“We’re on a fixed income. I don’t have that kind of money!” said Rosenberg, who suffers from a spinal disability and other chronic health problems. He said he spent the aid money long ago on food and clothing, both of which were in short supply after the storm.
The demand letters are part of a broader FEMA effort to recover millions of dollars in aid payments that went to ineligible households, either because of errors, a misunderstanding of the rules or outright fraud.
Rosenberg said the FEMA workers who urged him to apply for assistance during the period when residents were staying at the armory never explained that the money could only be used for housing.
“Everyone asked, ‘Do we have to pay this back later on? Is it a loan?’ They said, ‘No. It’s a gift from Obama,’” he said. “If I wasn’t eligible, then why give it to me in the first place? They knew we were living in an adult home. They knew our shelter was being paid for by the state. It’s not like we lied on the application.”