A victim of Hurricane Ike who got assistance from FEMA now says that "helping hand" has become a slap in the face.

Clay Gates applied for federal funds after Ike pushed four or five feet of saltwater through his La Porte home.

Gates says he jumped through hoops, showing officials every picture and document they asked to see.

"We got a letter saying, 'Hey, you qualified for this amount of benefits,'" Gates recalled. "And the next thing you know they direct-deposited money in our account."

In all, Clay Gates and his family received close to $23,000. He says he was frugal with this gift from the government.

"We've done all the sheet rock, we've done all the painting, we've done everything ourselves so we could at least use the money the best we could, to get ourselves back up to square."

They're still not quite there. Gates roughed in the stairs to the second floor. They're bare wood: functional, but not up to code.

But now, three years after the storm, FEMA wants its money back, saying Clay Gates was ineligible for assistance all along.

"We're figuring we're going to lose our home," said Gates. "We're going to lose everything we have. We don't know what to do."

Gates appealed but on September 24, 2011, FEMA sent a letter attempting to recoup $22,989.

Six days later, the US Treasury Department sent another letter saying Gates now owes $31,442, with fees, interest and penalties.

He has ten days to pay it.

"Ten days to pay it or they're going to tack more," explained Gates.

"Ten days are up Monday?" asked FOX 26 News.


"You have the money?"

"No. If I had the money," said Gates, "I would have never asked for help."

In all, FEMA is working to recoup more than half a billion dollars from about 160,000 applicants who received improper disaster assistance payments over the last 6 years.

Some of that is fraud.

But some was erroneously paid out to people, like Clay Gates, who say FEMA led him to believe he qualified for the money.

Gates tells FOX 26 News he finally got someone at FEMA to admit it was their mistake in the first place.

"And I asked her, I said, 'Don't you see that this is wrong?' And she said, 'Yes, but it's too late. It's already at the IRS. Too late, can't do anything about it.'"

FEMA won't discuss Gates' case specifically but says it's required by law to recover money that was paid out improperly, regardless of whose fault it was.