Lack of Cohesion Bedevils Recovery

Joan Buckley, 63, of New Orleans Parish, waits at a shelter in Baton Rouge, La. Some local officials say they need better guidance from states and Washington.
Joan Buckley, 63, of New Orleans Parish, waits at a shelter in Baton Rouge, La. Some local officials say they need better guidance from states and Washington. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Shankar Vedantam and Dean Starkman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 18, 2005

Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck, red tape and poor planning have left thousands of evacuees without basic services, according to local and state officials, public policy experts and survivors themselves.

Hundreds of thousands of people from New Orleans and Gulf Coast communities have fled, sometimes to neighboring states and beyond, moving in with friends and family or into shelters, public housing and hotels funded by the Red Cross. With little guidance from federal and state governments -- and no single person or entity in charge of the overall operation -- cities and counties have been left on their own to find survivors homes, schools, jobs and health care. A patchwork of policies has resulted, causing relief agencies to sometimes work at cross-purposes.

President Bush has promised a range of new initiatives to help the evacuees, including $5,000 grants to help the unemployed find jobs, a voucher program for students and more money for state Medicaid programs. But while Bush's promises of additional help have been welcomed, the initial efforts to provide for the evacuees has sometimes been disjointed, confusing and ineffective, local officials said:

· In Houston, some housing shelters have been located so far from the center of town that it has become difficult for evacuees to find jobs.

· In Mississippi, people waiting for promised housing in the form of mobile homes or trailers found themselves in a Catch-22 situation: Even as local officials said they were waiting for FEMA to provide the shelters, officials at the federal agency said they were waiting for local officials to provide the right locations.

· In Mobile, Ala., careful plans by school administrators to cope with a certain number of evacuee children from Mississippi and Louisiana were disrupted when a fax last week gave officials 48 hours' notice that hundreds of additional evacuees were on the way.

· Some services have not reached their targets: At the Dallas convention center free legal resources for evacuees were hardly being used, partly because no one had told survivors how to think through what their legal needs might be.

· Public assistance programs for evacuees are going to vary widely, depending on welfare policies in individual states, meaning that evacuees who happened to be transported to one state are likely to receive very different benefits than those in others.

"I don't see much evidence of overall planning and guidance," said Richard Murray, a public policy expert in Houston, which is hosting thousands of evacuees.

In an e-mail, Murray, who is director of the University of Houston's Center for Public Policy, wrote: "Couple a multi-state disaster of Katrina's magnitude, (including some of the poorer and less well-governed states in the union), add on a dysfunctional federal bureaucracy that had deteriorated in recent years, and a chief executive whose motto seemed to be, until yesterday, the buck stops there, and we get a helluva mess."

As the effort evolves, increasing numbers of federal agencies are getting involved, and officials are hopeful of improved performance. FEMA, which is in charge of organizing immediate assistance in disasters, has set up a housing command. The Department of Education is focused on schooling, the Environmental Protection Agency on making sure evacuated areas are safe to return to, while the Department of Health and Human Services handles health care.

Bush said in a speech to the nation Thursday that Americans "have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency." In his radio address yesterday, the president said that more than 500,000 evacuee families had received emergency help to pay for clothing, food and other essentials. "They will receive broader help in the future," he promised, adding that states that have provided schooling and health care to displaced people will be reimbursed by the federal government.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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