The Federal Emergency Management Agency is asking thousands of Americans who were victims of natural disasters to return more than $22 million in government aid, acknowledging it mistakenly made payments to many people who were ineligible.
FEMA is required by law to recover improperly spent money, but most of the people who were helped say they used the cash years ago, and they don't want to be financially punished because of the agency's errors.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that FEMA is seeking payments from more than 5,500 people who were affected by 129 separate disasters since 2005, including floods, tornados, hurricanes and other calamities from Arkansas to American Samoa.
The agency is still reviewing records, and more repayment requests could go out soon, including to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
FEMA admits the payments were largely its own fault — the result of employees who misunderstood eligibility rules, approved duplicate assistance for costs that were already covered by insurance or other sources, or made accounting errors. But the agency is still obligated to try to recover the money.
"We are committed to being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars," spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said.
People who are asked to make repayments have several options.
They may appeal the matter, apply for a hardship waiver that would forgive the debt or establish a payment plan. But after a spring marked by devastating tornadoes and floods, the agency's missteps illustrate the potential risk of accepting federal help.