The Investigators: Figuring Out FEMA

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - For 32 years, Mark Koenig has lived in the Country Ridge Neighborhood off of Millerville Road in Baton Rouge. His home had never flooded in the three-plus decades until August.

"I come here in the mornings when I'm off of work and I'm juggling between work and working on the house," Koenig said.

His home took on just over two feet of water. In fact, 25 inches marks the water line. Koenig did not have flood insurance, so he applied with FEMA.

"When I originally filed with FEMA, they told me I had to apply for an SBA loan before and the people who didn't qualify would receive more money from
FEMA," Koenig said.

He said SBA denied him. FEMA gave him $13,000 and then about a month later, he said he got another check for $4,500.

He received a total of $17,500. When asked how FEMA came up with the amount, Koeing said he had no idea.

"No, no idea. They came in. I had my appliances and they took measurements and I have no idea. I've already spent more than that much," Koenig said.

Koenig has since hired a private contractor who is charging him $45,000 to fix his home. As for all the contents he lost, Koenig said he has to dip into his retirement fund to replace that.

His home is 1,150 square feet. He got about two feet of water and he lives alone.

Just down the street, there is Jonathan Snowden. His home is slightly larger at 1,400 square feet, which got about two feet of water as well, but he is a family of four right now and soon to be five within the month.

"We received $8,000 for structural repairs," Snowden said.

With another baby on the way, Snowden does not have time to wait so he is fixing his own home with some help, but he said the $8,000 that FEMA gave them has already been spent.

"Pretty much all of it is into supplies and building materials. I mean I won't be able to replace any of the windows with that," Snowden said.

The Investigators asked other neighbors in Country Ridge how much they received. Even with similar damage, the numbers were all over the place.

Some got as little as $8,000, while others on Pecan Ridge and Magnolia Ridge got more than $20,000.

"To have extremes, one in the double digits, another in the single digits and they live right by each other, I think that's a little ridiculous," Snowden said.

"I'd like to know why some people get more," Koenig said. "Why is there such a big discrepancy?"

The Investigators took those questions to FEMA's deputy federal coordinating officer, Tito Hernandez, asking why there is a discrepancy in the amount the different homeowners were receiving from FEMA.

"The money that people receive from FEMA is not based on square footage. It's based on need and based on family composition," Hernandez said.

Meaning if there's a home with a couple, they need one bedroom fixed quickly, but if there's a family with a couple and two children, then they need three bedrooms. Hernandez said FEMA money is simply emergency assistance and not to make homes whole again.

"For example, you have a $3,000 door, I'm going to give you the $300 door because all you need is to cover the hall to get the house secured," Hernandez said.

Hernandez said FEMA has contracts with specific companies to have inspectors go out to the flooded homes.

"They perform the inspections," Hernandez said. "They send them to one of our national processing service centers where we have people who actually make decisions based on family composition, owner, renter, whether they have insurance or not and making the decision as to the best assistance we can provide. "

Since September 9, The Investigators have been sending email after email to both FEMA and the state of Louisiana requesting a copy of the list that is used to calculate how much money homeowners get per item damaged.

However, The Investigators simply got the runaround after sending emails and making phone calls to FEMA and to the state over a two-month period asking for the list.

The state said FEMA has the list. FEMA said, "It is a state document, so it needs to come from the state."

There was back and forth from the federal FEMA level putting it back on the state. Eventually, FEMA said that The Investigators needed to submit a freedom of information act request (FOIA).

The Investigators submitted that request the next day after being told to do so on October 6. Still though, FEMA puts it on the state and the state still says, "We do not have a copy of the costing mechanism used by FEMA."

Kiran: "Is there a specific list that FEMA uses to figure out exactly how much a person gets for maybe a table, bed or things like that?"
Hernandez: "We have prices that are mean prices established nationwide and we adjust them for the disaster rates and locality." 
Kiran: "Can we get a copy of that list?"
Hernandez: "You need to do a FOIA to get that information, the freedom of information act."

Hernandez stressed FEMA is not meant to make you whole again, but another agency is.

"We come in to provide you some relief in emergency assistance. The Small Business Administration can give you the total amount of money that you need to be whole to come back to where you were before," Hernandez said.

But remember, Koenig said he applied for an SBA loan and was denied. He added that his credit score is 844 and he was still denied.

Kiran: "What do you tell all the people in south Louisiana as to the discrepancy amount they are receiving?" 
Hernandez: "I tell them not to look at their neighbors because each case is unique and if you have a need for more additional assistance, call 1-800-621-3362, visit one of the disaster recovery centers and do a formal appeal."

When asked if he was satisfied with FEMA's help, Koenig said, "absolutely not."

"Seems they can help other countries and all that but not willing to help the American people in a time of desperation," Koenig said.

FEMA tells The Investigators the prices are negotiated by FEMA at the federal level and the affected state. However, Louisiana said the state is not involved at all. It's been more than two months since FEMA has been handing out money.

The Investigators await results of an FOIA request and will have an updated when they hear back on it.

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