Decision might come soon in FEMA lawsuit; plaintiffs added

McALLEN — A decision might come soon for a group of residents seeking relief after their claims related to storm damage were denied by FEMA last year.

Valley residents are part of a federal lawsuit against the Federal Emergency Management Administration, or FEMA, claiming they were denied disaster relief funds they qualified for and also failed to publish guidelines that would allow them to appeal the decision, according to court documents.

The lawsuit was originally filed in September of last year by attorneys from Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid on behalf of 26 plaintiffs. It now includes about 40 people as well as LUPE, La Union del Pueblo Entero, a local immigration advocacy group, who represents some of its members in the lawsuit, the documents show.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that after severe storm and flood damage to their homes their claims were denied by FEMA officials, the lawsuit states.

One such plaintiff, Daniel Barbosa, of Mission, stated in an affidavit that his living room was destroyed and his roof damaged during storms, but FEMA only awarded him a little more than $2,000 for damage he said was estimated at more than $10,000.

Attorneys with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which is representing the families, stated FEMA has broken the law for years by not publishing the guidelines it uses to decide who gets funding and how much money victims are eligible for after a disaster. The lawsuit states Congress directed FEMA to come up with the regulations in three separate statutes in 2002.

The lawsuit also states FEMA contracts out the inspection work, hiring a company to recruit people with the sole criteria of having a clean background check. Those inspectors are instructed to talk to the applicants to ensure home ownership when they conduct site visits.

FEMA does not, according to the lawsuit, require the inspectors to talk to the applicant about what damages the applicant claims were caused by the disaster. That decision, as well as whether the home is habitable, is left solely to the inspector, the lawsuit states.

At the time of Hurricane Dolly, officials said FEMA admitted to a “deferred maintenance rule,” meaning if the home had not been maintained by the owner prior to the disaster, FEMA would not pay out.

Officials with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid said they planned to file a motion for summary judgment in the next couple weeks, with a decision possibly coming soon after.

Last year, Hidalgo County was deemed a disaster area following the May 31 storms that tore off roofs and damaged homes and businesses in Granjeno, Hidalgo and Mission.