FEMA must resume housing payments

November 30, 2006|By Nicole Gaouette and Ann Simmons | Nicole Gaouette and Ann Simmons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Condemning the bureaucracy at the Federal Emergency Management Agency as "Kafkaesque," a federal judge ordered the government yesterday to immediately resume housing payments to Gulf Coast residents who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina.

Six months after Katrina ravaged the region in August last year, FEMA began ending benefit payments to several thousand families still in temporary housing and unable to return to their homes.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said the agency had violated the evacuees' rights by not adequately explaining why it was ending the benefits, making it difficult for storm victims to appeal the decisions.

"It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights," he wrote.

Leon ordered the agency to explain its actions, restore short-term benefits to evacuees who had been cut off and give them the two months of housing payments they would have received after payments were stopped in August 2006. The ruling affects 11,000 families, mostly in Louisiana and Texas.

The judge cited letters from FEMA that gave contradictory explanations for decisions. He also described FEMA's practice of conveying its decisions "cryptically by a code or phrase" decipherable only after evacuees obtained a separate pamphlet explaining the codes.

The judge quoted one evacuee who said of her efforts to get her benefits restored. "The reasons I have been given for the termination are not what is in the documents, and/or the reasons change each time I call," Carmen Handy wrote to the court. "Every time I call back, the person answering the call knows nothing about what the previous person told me."

Under FEMA's transitional housing program for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, evacuees were entitled to financial assistance for 18 months or a maximum of $26,200.

After Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, FEMA began providing victims with short-term housing assistance. In February, it attempted to transfer eligible evacuees to a longer-term assistance program, which required recipients to meet certain criteria, but it denied thousands of their applications, according to Leon's ruling. After a 30-day notice period, FEMA also cut short-term benefits.

Stephen Bradberry, head organizer for the New Orleans chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, an advocacy group that filed the lawsuit, said the ruling "allows families more time to try and take care of their affairs. And it will buy more time to put pressure on the government to step up to the plate and handle its responsibilities."

FEMA press secretary Aaron Walker said the agency's "emergency sheltering initiative was conceived as a compassionate but short-term solution to shelter evacuees. By law, sheltering assistance can be provided for only a limited period of time."

FEMA had always intended to transfer eligible evacuees to the long-term benefits program, but "some individuals and households do not qualify," he said.

Nicole Gaouette and Ann Simmons write for the Los Angeles Times.

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