When the floodwaters from Hurricane Isabel inundated the Belle View condominium complex in September 2003, causing nearly $6 million in damage, condo owner Stephen Snell had to flee to a nearby motel for two weeks because the water and mold caused him to have serious breathing problems.
Nearly two years after the hurricane, Snell, a consultant, said he and dozens of other Belle View residents were "dumbfounded" when they received a collection letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency last month. The letter demanded repayment of disaster relief money the agency awarded Snell and other residents of the beleaguered condominium complex, which sits just off the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Fairfax County, south of Alexandria. It gave them a 30-day deadline to pay.
"I couldn't believe what I was reading," Snell said. "It was very upsetting. . . . The circumstances under which we got this money were so stressful. We were flooded. I had to leave because I have asthma, and it was so humid. There was mildew, mold and creepy crawly insects."
FEMA recently demanded that about 147 homeowners repay at least part of the funds they were awarded -- a total of about $140,000. The agency said that according to condominium association bylaws, the federal government should not have to cover some repairs. Those are the ones for which FEMA wants reimbursement, according to agency spokeswoman Nicol Andrews.
Andrews said the agency normally recoups about 2 to 3 percent of the money it disburses after a disaster. After Hurricane Isabel, it allocated $56 million in disaster relief for Virginia.
"It's not a process that's very comfortable for anyone. It's our obligation," Andrews said. "These people still have an option to appeal. . . . We want to help them if we can. We don't want to penalize anybody seeking disaster relief."
Belle View's condo board president and its general manager did not return calls yesterday.
Austin Durrer, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), said Moran's office is working with FEMA and the Belle View condominium association to get payment extensions for the residents and help them appeal FEMA's findings. Snell, for his part, is appealing FEMA's request that he pay back $484.49 of the $2,000 the agency gave him to help repair the flooded heat pump for his unit.
"I'll pay this back when hell freezes over," Snell said.
After the hurricane, about 2,200 residents of the condo complex voted to borrow about $3 million to make repairs not covered by their $1.25 million flood insurance policy. They had to cover the loan in addition to paying their condo fees. Snell was assessed $5,760 by the condo association for his share of the debt.
FEMA is by far the country's largest provider of flood insurance and could have provided a policy to Belle View that would have covered it for far more, officials said.
Although the complex is in a flood plain, condo board members at the time said they were unaware that federal flood insurance was available and instead chose the $1.25 million insurance policy through a private insurer, Lloyds of London.
The hurricane created a storm surge that came up the Potomac River at high tide and sent a 91/2-foot wall of water over the top of a dike system and inundated the neighborhood. The water flooded all 65 of Belle View's buildings, destroying 17 basement condominiums, electrical and heat pump systems for units on upper floors, and personal items in storage units.
"Needless to say, people are upset, nonplussed and [expletive] mad," said Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon). "It's absolutely inexplicable the position that has been taken."