Recovery in decline

December 16, 2005

This week, when a federal judge barred the Federal Emergency Management Agency from cutting off payments for thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims living in hotels, he didn't mince words about the agency's latest housing debacle.

"Notoriously erratic and numbingly insensitive," is how U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval put it.

The judge's highly critical opinion was entirely deserved. FEMA's performance housing people displaced by the hurricane has been consistently abysmal, and the burden must be on agency administrators to come up with a more efficient plan for moving evacuees into long-term housing. Thus far, the agency has completely mismanaged the disaster recovery process and has left anxious and traumatized people with no idea where they will be living next, or if they can even count on FEMA's continued help until they get back on their feet.

The agency spent $1.2 million on tents only to later decide against moving families into tent cities that might resemble refugee camps in developing countries. FEMA also ordered 125,000 trailers and mobile homes to house the victims, but that plan has been plagued by delays and only a fraction of the trailers are in use. Next came the plans to house displaced families in hotels, at a cost of $350 million and counting, and then to order them out - without ensuring they had replacement accommodations.

FEMA's disaster planning is itself a disaster. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who said he plans to overhaul the beleaguered agency by next summer, must act now. He should gather FEMA managers based in Washington and in regional state offices and map out a resettlement plan that moves the families out of hotels and into long-term housing in organized phases. Mr. Chertoff should also enlist the help of housing professionals from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and seek the input of state governors and city mayors who have done a better job helping house evacuees than FEMA.

The White House and Congress must also support Mr. Chertoff by providing him with enough funding to get the job done right. Any further delays or bad planning will almost certainly cost taxpayers and the federal government more money and erode all remaining public trust that an agency created to help Americans in times of disaster is up to the job.

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