Costly hospitality

May 25, 2006

It's not surprising that displaced victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita filed a lawsuit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency. What is surprising is that they didn't do it sooner.

The class-action lawsuit accuses FEMA of not providing evacuees with temporary housing for the time period promised and seeks a temporary restraining order to prevent the agency from ending housing assistance payments for more than 17,000 low-income families nationwide on May 31. A lot is riding on this case, and not just for the evacuees. Without an extension of housing assistance, host cities that took in evacuees will be left solely responsible for sheltering thousands of people, many of whom will likely stay permanently.

But housing is only part of the problem. Cities that received large numbers of displaced families are hurting: Schools have had to absorb thousands of new children, hospitals are treating uninsured evacuees, and municipal and public services are overburdened. In many cases, the federal government is not fully reimbursing these costs.

This is unacceptable. State and local governments should not have to pay for the inefficiencies of FEMA's problem-plagued housing programs. Days after the devastating storms, the Bush administration promised to help hurricane victims rebuild their lives, and it should do so by requiring FEMA to subsidize housing for evacuees for one year, as the agency originally said it would. This would guarantee evacuees housing until the fall.

In Houston, home to nearly 200,000 displaced people, 21,000 child evacuees are being taught in the public schools at an annual cost of $6,500 per child. But the federal government reimburses the schools only $4,000 per student. Some 7,600 families in Houston, many of them unemployed, have been deemed ineligible for future housing assistance by FEMA, while 1,744 others await word on their status. In Houston, unlike the rest of the country, evacuees' housing benefits will end June 30, a reprieve granted after city officials asked federal officials for more time. Nonetheless, ending rent payments still leaves Houston and other host cities holding the bag and exacerbates the plight of the evacuees.

"Just because buildings are not down, the winds are not blowing and the streets aren't flooded, does not mean there is not an ongoing emergency," said Frank Michel, a spokesman for the Houston mayor. "Houston didn't ask for this battle, and we're trying to be a good neighbor with compassion and competency. We want to get these families to the point where they can make decisions for themselves on how they're going to rebuild their lives. But it's very hard for people to make decisions when they are thinking about being evicted."

The lack of federal support for affected cities virtually guarantees that when the next disaster strikes, cities and states will be far less inclined to volunteer their help.

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