As Katrina bore down on New Orleans, Marie Collins, now a junior, fled from student housing at the University of New Orleans to stay with her grandmother in Mississippi. Because she spent months displaced from her apartment, the Federal Emergency Management Agency later gave her thousands of dollars for housing assistance. Now the agency has sent her a bill asking her to return much of that money, leaving Collins in a lurch as she figures out how to come up with the cash.
“They said that my apartment complex was livable and they wanted the money back,” Collins said. Collins calculated that FEMA sent her a little over $4,000 and that the agency is asking her to return around $2,300.
“I really needed the money and I don’t have it to give back,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I haven’t had time to think about that yet.”
There are potentially thousands of students that might be facing similar difficulties. An article from Black College Wire reported Tuesday  that hundreds of students at Dillard University may be forced to pay back money that they received from FEMA.
A spokesman for FEMA said that Dillard is not the only college with students in this situation. Most of the students who are being asked to return FEMA money are from universities in New Orleans, but some students in Mississippi might also be affected. The agency does not know how many students the policy applies to.
Joseph K. Byrd, vice president for student services at Xavier University of Louisiana, said that he has been giving students a letter that they can pass along to FEMA, to prove that their residence was damaged.
“We’ve had requests from about 25 students and it will probably go higher than that,” he said. Byrd calculated that about 1,700 students were living in student housing when Katrina hit, but not all of them lost property or were flooded out.
James McIntyre, a spokesman for FEMA, said that students will have to pay back money if their valuables were covered by insurance. In some cases, he said, students became confused when they filed claims for losses and added in the college property, such as desks or other university property. That money will also have to be repaid. Students will also have to repay any money for housing assistance unless the student housing was their primary residence.
“All the students who have been contacted have a right to an appeal,” he said. If the appeal is ultimately rejected, McIntyre said that the agency will set up a payment plan to give each student more time to reimburse the government.
The investigations into overpayments following hurricane Katrina are being carried out by the Department of Homeland Security and an interagency federal force called the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force . The task force has focused on fraudulent charities, identity theft, and government benefit fraud.
“Whether or not their housing was habitable, students should be qualified for assistance like everyone else,” said Melanie Roussell, spokeswoman for Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat whose district includes New Orleans. She added that students were some of the first people to come back to New Orleans after the hurricane disaster.
“College students have become the backbone of our redevelopment and we need to do everything we can to make sure they can afford to stay,” she said. Roussell said that the bills from FEMA are a sign that the Stafford Act, which created the agency in 1979, needs to be reformed because it does not take into account catastrophes that can displace people for months at a time.
But McIntyre said that the agency has an obligation to go after tax payer money. “FEMA, as a rule, will go after anyone who was overpaid,” he said.