Coastal Bend families sue FEMA, allege agency uses "secret" rules
A look inside a damaged Bishop home.
COASTAL BEND -
A number of Coastal Bend families claim they've been short-changed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They, along with other South Texas residents, are suing the agency.
These families want to be able to fix their homes, which were damaged by major flooding events over the last 18 months. To do that, they need money they say FEMA should have given them, but didn't.
The lawsuit was filed today by a non-profit firm called Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. It was filed on behalf of 26 families.
Ricardo Hernandez and Diana Urbina live in a badly damaged home in Bishop. They are one of the plaintiffs in the suit. Their home was damaged during a declared emergency (rain and flooding) in May, 2015. They need about $10,000 to fix everything.
"The house is not, as you can tell, it's not livable," Urbina says.
However, after a ten minute inspection, FEMA disagreed, citing no damage bad enough to make the house unlivable. Hernandez and Urbina weren't paid a dime.
"It comes out of our pocket to do what we need to do to the house just to live in it," Urbina says.
Tracy Figueroa is an attorney with TRLA. She's representing the families in the suit.
"I hear these stories over and over from clients denied for insufficient damage or wondering why they received $75 when their damages are $7,000," she says.
The suit accuses FEMA of using "secret" rules to decide which homes qualify for relief, and how much. The suit claims these "secret" rules violate federal law.
"They (FEMA) say that something has to be caused by the disaster, but that can be interpreted a lot of different ways by different people, and we don't know how the inspectors that are doing this job are actually deciding that," Figueroa says.
The suit also alleges weak training requirements for inspectors, among other restrictions.
"FEMA inspectors are not allowed to get up on roofs... They don't go under the house to look at whatever may have happened to plumbing or foundation," Figueroa says.
The suit demands FEMA revisit the 26 families' claims, and publish all rules and regulations.
"Our clients are low income. Many of them have disabilities and so, they really don't have another way to go about making the repairs," Figueroa says.
Homeowners can appeal FEMA decisions, but according to the suit, the appeal process is just as crooked as the initial inspection.
FEMA declined to comment on the suit, since it is on-going.