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Woman pleads guilty to hurricane disaster assistance fraud

Main Street Bridge downtown Jacksonville Monday, Sept. 11, 2017
Main Street Bridge downtown Jacksonville Monday, Sept. 11, 2017

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Florida woman has pleaded guilty to lying about damage caused by Hurricane Irma.

Bernita Willette Carswell, 36, pleaded guilty in Jacksonville federal court Tuesday to one count of disaster assistance fraud, according to court records. She faces up to 30 years in prison, as well as paying restitution.

Carswell made an application for disaster assistance benefits to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in September 2017, according to court documents. She claimed that her primary residence in Jacksonville was damaged during Hurricane Irma, forcing her to stay in a nearby rental property. FEMA paid Carswell rental assistance totaling $15,024.80.

Department of Homeland Security investigators determined that Carswell’s statements to FEMA were false, and her Jacksonville home was not damaged. She lived there through and after Hurricane Irma, and a lease agreement she had submitted to FEMA was fraudulent.

Hurricane Irma struck Florida in September 2017, causing about $50 billion in damage throughout the state.