Stormy weather

May 15, 2006

Less than a month before the start of the hurricane season, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is touting a hurricane preparedness plan based on "lessons learned" from last year's disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina. Among new strategies being implemented is a "smarter plan for long-term housing" that streamlines the process for housing displaced hurricane victims and determining their eligibility for housing assistance.

The need for such planning is clear. Cities around the country are facing major challenges housing thousands of Katrina evacuees and dealing with an overwhelmed, overly bureaucratic and often bungling FEMA. If the agency's performance to date is any indication of what to expect in the event of another big storm, potentially within months - or perhaps a major West Coast earthquake - the outlook is not promising.

FEMA's emergency housing programs suffer from the same disorganization and inefficiency that plagued the agency's earlier placements of thousands of families in hotels and motels. The point is simple: The problem doesn't end once people have been given shelter.

Cities and states with large numbers of Katrina evacuees complain of spending too much time trying to persuade FEMA to waive burdensome rules, provide timely housing reimbursements and reconsider confusing policy decisions that hurt hurricane victims. This is happening at a time when FEMA is ending housing assistance for thousands of displaced families who will likely rely on host cities and states for help. Many of those displaced are still unemployed - or unemployable - and making them economic wards of host states is also unfair. Why should Georgia or Texas, say, be expected to take up the slack just because the feds have decided to give up?

Another urban disaster like Katrina may be unlikely, but it is by no means unthinkable. The immediate response to Katrina was lamentable, and the long-term response has been equally lacking. It's great that FEMA is working on a plan to make it easier to get housing after a catastrophe - but that's only the beginning.

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