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Residents concerned with FEMA assistance for damaged graves; AG - KATC.com | Continuous News Coverage | Acadiana-Lafayette

Residents concerned with FEMA assistance for damaged graves; AG steps in

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EVANGELINE PARISH, La -

Some Evangeline Parish residents are being put on notice by the Attorney General's Office.

At issue: Checks issued by FEMA for repairs at St. Matthew's Cemetery in Ville Platte. Since then, questions have come up about how to spend that money and who should make repairs.

Out of the 113 checks issued, only 71 have been turned over to the church, which houses the private cemetery. According to the Attorney General's Office, the money was supposed to be turned in immediately after receiving the checks. It's been two weeks since the checks were issued, and several people have not turned in the money to start repairs.

Officials with the Attorney General's Office say that those who do not turn in their checks could face legal actions.

KATC previously reported how some people wanted to shop around for a different contractor before sending the checks to a contractor the church decided on. The money to fix the tombs ranged from $600 to $4,500, depending on the damages. Many of the people who claimed the tombs received up to six checks per tomb to fix the graves.  

"If someone did something with that money that they weren't supposed to, then this is fraud. It's fraud at a federal level and state level," said Ryan Seideman,  of the state Attorney General's office. 

Some of the people who received checks don't have relatives buried at St. Matthew's.  A "good samaritan policy" set up by FEMA allowed them to claim abandoned plots in order to facilitate the repair process.

"By the time we were notified of the damages and we got out, it was the last day of registration," Seidemann said.

According to the Attorney General's Office, FEMA can only assist with cemetery repairs for each individual tomb. 

"The idea is basically FEMA will provide funding for individual people," Seidemann said. "They will not provide to a church or company or anything like that. The individual people don't have to be relatives. They can be a 'good Samaritan.'"

The policy was put in place because many of the tombs were either unidentified or unclaimed by relatives of the deceased. However, others whose relatives are buried in the cemetery say they are worried that some of the good Samaritans might not have good intentions.

"I would prefer that one contractor does it all," said Geralyn Charles, who has family members buried in the cemetery. "That way we know when it'll be done and who will do it. The money will go to one person."  

Regardless of who the contractor is, the money must be turned over to a contractor to fix the cemetery. If there is money left over, that must be turned into FEMA as well.

"They've obligated themselves to do cemetery repairs with those checks," Seidemann said. "Whether they like it or not they will have to come up with that money. The reality is this is something that could land them in a criminal situation. It's federal money and can carry fines of fraud."

The Attorney General's Office says because St. Matthew's is a private cemetery, it's up to the church owner to determine who the contractor will be.

"I wish everyone would all get together with this," said Freddie Durgin Sr, the church's pastor. " Anything that is divided can not stand." 

While the repairs to the cemetery are on hold for now, members of the church say they just want their loved ones to rest in peace. 

To make sure that the money is being spent and that repairs are in good condition, the Attorney General's office has offered to do a reassessment of the cemetery once repairs are done. 

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