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Hawaii Volcano Victims Asked To Return Disaster Relief Funds

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HILO — Kilauea eruption victims who were ruled ineligible have been asked to return federal disaster relief payments, officials said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency confirmed 77 disaster relief applicants were asked to return some or all of their payments, The Hawaii Tribune-Herald reportedThursday.

The Big Island eruption that began in May 2018 destroyed more than 700 homes in Lower Puna.

The ruling followed routine evaluations of 1,002 disaster relief applications, FEMA said.

The agency cannot confirm the amount of money to be returned because the evaluation and appeals process is ongoing, said FEMA public affairs officer Brandi Richard.

Every recipient of disaster relief funds is informed the money may be expropriated following a mandatory review and that they can appeal their cases, Richard said.

The request to return funds is unfortunate but not unusual, she said.

"We're not happy to have to ask people to do this," Richard said. "But this happens with each disaster we respond to."

Leilani resident Karen O'Brien received about $3,500 from FEMA, all of which might have to be returned because the agency did not have sufficient evidence she lived on the property, she said.

"It's hard to prove we lived there, though, because we were completely off-grid," O'Brien said.

The Hawaii County eruption recovery team encountered only three refund cases, and each was referred to state recovery officers, said Diane Ley, director of the Department of Research and Development.

"It's important to note that each case is unique," Ley said. "But the thing is that these are government funds, so we have to respect that."

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