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Houses, camps and hotel along La. 1 in Golden Meadow, seen showing damag on Tuesday, August 31, 2021 in Golden Meadow in Lafourche parish, after Hurricane Ida blew through on Sunday.

Throughout South Louisiana, people affected by Hurricane Ida have sought help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — only to be told that they've already applied.

It's a tough way to find out that scammers used their personal information to try and defraud the federal government. 

Hundreds of thousands of Louisianans have applied for FEMA’s Critical Needs Assistance in recent weeks. The $500 payments are meant to cover costs like shattered roofs, generator reimbursements and spoiled food, among other things.

Hiding among those filings, the agency says, are digital criminals who use stolen personal information — names, addresses, social security numbers — to enter fake claims in hopes of turning a quick profit.

That means some hurricane survivors who need help are being turned away after scammers already used their stolen identities to file fraudulent claims.

In hard-hit Lafourche Parish, someone tried requesting a $500 assistance payment to replenish her refrigerator after all her food spoiled during the weeks-long power outage. She said she knows another resident who went to make a claim to pay for a fence that Ida ripped out of the earth.

Neither could enter FEMA's online system.

FEMA can’t put a figure on how many fraudulent claims have entered the agency’s system since Hurricane Ida made landfall near Port Fourchon on Aug. 29, agency spokesman Nathan Custer said.

But, since The Advocate published a story describing Fema fraud after Ida, two dozen Louisianans contacted the newspaper describing experiences with agency-appointed inspectors arriving at their doorsteps to verify assistance requests they never made.

Some were people who hadn’t incurred any costs in the storm and didn’t plan on filing for assistance in the first place. Those residents mostly lived in places like Baton Rouge, which Ida's winds and rain spared after they veered east.

Others live in areas the storm leveled.

“It’s really frustrating because (the scammers) are taking advantage of people who could very well be in a very bad situation,” said Misty McElroy, a LaFourche Parish resident. 

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The parish went without power for weeks, and many residents remain unhoused. McElroy doesn't need the assistance as badly as some, she said, but she lost a refrigerator’s worth of food during the power outage.

She tried requesting the critical needs assistance to pay for the spoiled groceries. But FEMA's online portal wouldn't allow her to start a claim, saying she had already entered one.

Now, McElroy is in the process of filing a fraud report — a safeguard she wishes FEMA had implemented at the start of the filing process. 

"I would tell FEMA that they need to lock this down on the front end," McElroy said. "People are having to wait a really long time for FEMA aid who really, really need it."

For decades, FEMA fraud and hurricane recovery have gone hand-in-hand. After Katrina and Rita, which struck Louisiana within a month of each other in 2005, FEMA distributed $2 billion in taxpayer dollars to scam claimants.

That was good for 11 percent of funds the agency spent in Louisiana after those storms, a congressional audit revealed.

Because of Hurricane Ida’s punishing impact — it was the most powerful storm to strike South Louisiana since the 1850s, decimating infrastructure from coastal barrier islands to the Mississippi state line — scam attempts may be particularly widespread, officials say.

After a major storm, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform usually holds an audit on how fraud has appeared in FEMA's response, said Zach Barnett, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge.

"After the 2016 Flood, Congressman Graves worked closely with the committee to develop their report, which resulted in many reforms he added to the 2018 FEMA reform bill," Barnett said in a statement. "Congressman Graves stands ready to assist the committee on any matters related to Hurricane Ida and has preemptively spoken with FEMA and other federal partners on areas to improve disaster response."

In an email, Custer said that anyone who thinks they're a fraud victim should call FEMA's helpine at 800-621-3362 to report what happened.

"FEMA will then flag the fraudulent registration," Custer said, "and those citizens who had not yet registered, but have legitimate reasons to do so, will be helped to overcome the fraud and file a normal request for help from FEMA."

Residents have reported long wait times on the FEMA helpline. Those who prefer to speak with an agency staffer in-person may report to one of FEMA's disaster recovery centers.


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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