The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is frequently criticized for its inept responses to natural disasters and other crises, but now the agency is taking steps that would diminish the funds available to California wildfire victims and even force them to pay back any federal assistance they received.

FEMA filed a $3.9 billion claim against Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the utility widely blamed for sparking the 2015 Butte Fire, the 2017 Wine Country wildfires, and the 2018 Camp Fire. PG&E declared bankruptcy in the wake of the fires and its reorganization plans had been long underway when the federal government’s claim showed up.

The multi-billion-dollar claim would have to be taken out of the $13.5 billion fund set up under PG&E’s current bankruptcy plan to compensate the wildfire victims. That would eliminate nearly a third of the victims’ compensation funds, leaving those who lost their property, livelihoods, and even loved ones with relatively little relief to aid their recovery.

Going after victims directly is another tack the agency says it is prepared to take. According to that plan, anyone who received FEMA help that overlaps with PG&E payment on claims would be forced to pay FEMA back.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, court records show that just $282 million of the total relates to individual assistance FEMA gave to victims of the disasters — the rest is for aid provided to other government agencies and administrative costs.

Although FEMA says it simply seeks to hold PG&E accountable for the billions of dollars the government spent helping individuals and communities devastated by the fires, former FEMA director James Lee Witt told Santa Rosa, California’s Press Democrat that he was shocked by FEMA’s claim. He called FEMA’s actions “unusual” and “inappropriate.”

“You’re taking money away from the rebuild and individuals when your job is to help individuals — not to take money away from them,” Mr. Witt told the Press Democrat.

On Jan. 8, 40 U.S. Representatives, led by California Democrats Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson, sent a letter to FEMA’s acting administrator Peter Gaynor asking the agency to withdraw its claim against PG&E. The letter read in part:

This claim by FEMA in federal bankruptcy court puts at risk the possibility that the thousands of families still struggling to rebuild their lives will not receive the restitution they deserve. The inequity of this situation is evident, as we are told by victims that they were reassured by FEMA that they would not face additional costs when accepting federal offers of debris removal. Not only does this reversal by FEMA betray these promises, it will serve to undermine any future effort to coordinate rebuilding and debris removal in response to future natural disasters as FEMA’s reputation as an honest and fair partner will be diminished.

California state Sen. Scott Wiener told Mother Jones that what FEMA is doing to the wildfire victims is “disgusting.” The publication quotes him as saying:

These victims have had their lives turned upside down … The idea that we’re going to try to nickel and dime these survivors by saying the FEMA money might be a little bit duplicative? Come on, it’s just absurd. This emergency support is there to help people in crisis. The last thing that FEMA should be doing is trying to go after these victims for reimbursement or try to debilitate the PG&E settlement funds so that victims aren’t being made whole. I really hope that FEMA backs off.

Additional source: Congressman Jared Huffman

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