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FEMA Restricts Evacuee Data, Citing Privacy

The Red Cross says on its site that all the information was obtained through waivers. Privately, several Red Cross officials acknowledged that in the rush to facilitate family reunifications and care for Katrina's victims many waivers were not signed or were lost.

Shannon Perez, Texas communications director for Service Employees International Union, one of the nation's largest labor organizations, has faced similar obstacles trying to find 314 members from New Orleans who are believed to be in Texas. Perez said she wants to find them because the union has raised $1 million for SEIU members victimized by the hurricane.

"We have money for these folks, but we can't access the information," she said. "Either the databases are incomplete or we're not allowed to find out where our members are."

For law enforcement, the lack of access to FEMA information is also an irritant. Louisiana has provided states with a list of the 1,340 convicted sex offenders and 10,000 parolees who were registered in New Orleans.

In some regions, law enforcement officials met planeloads of Katrina evacuees and ran criminal background checks on all of them, prompting criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union. This occurred in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Kentucky and other states to which evacuees from the hurricane zone were airlifted.

"If a busload of seniors went to Texas to see a Cowboys game, would they do a background check on them? Why are these people any different?" asked Christopher Calabrese, a lawyer at ACLU headquarters in New York.

Local prosecutors have requested that FEMA cross-check its database with one that includes convicted sex offenders and parolees but have been rebuffed. In a conference call Oct. 3 with representatives of law enforcement agencies from Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Florida and Texas and from the Department of Justice, the federal lawyer wanted to focus on the potential for fraud in the post-hurricane recovery. But, said Cliff Herberg, the first assistant district attorney in Texas's Bexar County, the call was quickly hijacked by local law enforcement concerns about potential criminals.

With a database of approximately 30,000 evacuees in San Antonio, FEMA by far has the most accurate knowledge of who is in his region, he said. "We are not proposing background checks on everyone. We just want known parolees and sex offenders, and FEMA won't do it."

Herberg said law enforcement can be exempted from the privacy act when it demonstrates a need. "This is not a fishing expedition," he said. "We are putting these people in homes and shelters across the nation. We have the Louisiana lists. We've got to know who they are."


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