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Officials furious that FEMA seeks money from California wildfire victims

Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

Wildfire victims have already filed objections in bankruptcy court to the government agencies' claims.

"The government claims compete with and have the potential to diminish the funds available to pay individual fire victims and businesses," victims' lawyers said in court papers last month.

Last week a bipartisan group of California members of Congress urged Peter Gaynor, the acting head of FEMA, to withdraw its claim in the bankruptcy court. "This claim by FEMA ... puts at risk the possibility that the thousands of families still struggling to rebuild their lives will not receive the restitution they deserve," they wrote.

The controversy intensified over the weekend when FEMA regional administrator Bob Fenton told the San Francisco Chronicle that his agency might seek reimbursement from victims themselves if PG&E doesn't pay what it owes.

On Monday, FEMA spokesman Robert Barker said the agency would attempt to retrieve, at most, $100 million from fire victims, representing the amount of individual assistance paid to the victims. He said FEMA has never attempted such a recovery before, would be extremely reluctant to take such a step and doesn't know what form it would take.

"We really haven't played out a scenario like this before, we can't say exactly what we're going to do," Barker said. "Yes, it will be complicated and yes, it will be difficult and, yes, it will be disruptive for wildfire survivors."

 

FEMA is basing its claim against PG&E on federal law, the Stafford Act, which says the agency can demand reimbursement from someone who deliberately causes a big disaster.

But fire victims' lawyers said in court papers that, while PG&E has been blamed by state investigators for causing the wildfires, there have been no allegations that the utility deliberately lit the fires. "Negligence is not the same as intentionally causing a fire or committing arson," the lawyers wrote.

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