FEMA, Round Two

Monday, December 5, 2005

THIS TIME around, it's happening in slow motion. But that doesn't mean that the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to the evacuee crisis in the months after Hurricane Katrina is going any better than that first, panicked, non-response to the hurricane itself three months ago. To be fair to the agency, the scale of the current crisis remains unprecedented in American history: Some 1.5 million people were displaced from southern Louisiana. The agency has provided $4.4 billion to evacuees and continues to pay hotel bills for about 50,000 families. It isn't FEMA's fault that continued uncertainty about the future of New Orleans and other cities in the Gulf Coast region is preventing many evacuees from either returning home or readjusting to their new lives and moving on.

Nevertheless, it has become increasingly obvious that neither FEMA nor the states that house the evacuees have any medium-term plan for them. Meanwhile, the agency is sending conflicting signals. Several weeks ago, FEMA warned hurricane victims living in every state except Louisiana and Mississippi that it intended to stop paying for hotel rooms by Dec. 1. Then, realizing that thousands of people would be put onto the streets, the agency reversed itself, saying it would continue to pay for rooms in eight other states until Jan. 7. The agency says it plans to stick to the new date, but critics point out that mere ignorance of deadlines is not what is preventing those in hotels from finding apartments. Rents have risen in many Gulf cities, such as Baton Rouge, La., and Houston, yet FEMA subsidies remain capped.

FEMA also remains afflicted by an overly heavy bureaucracy and, it seems, inexperience. Landlords and their advocates complain that FEMA long ignored their offers of greater cooperation. Information has sometimes been transmitted to evacuees in garbled form. Long lines for trailers remain.

The agency's wobbliness reflects the administration's uncertainty about when it will stop subsidizing Katrina victims. FEMA holds out the possibility of subsidizing rents for as long as 18 months, and, according to an agency spokesman, it might be possible to extend benefits longer. But at the moment, the benefits are guaranteed for only three months, and not all landlords are willing to rent to evacuees of uncertain status. More important, the criteria for obtaining extensions remain disturbingly vague. FEMA says families must "demonstrate a continued need for cash assistance" and must show they have "a plan for moving forward" -- distinctly subjective tests.

In the past FEMA has risen to the occasion and helped individual communities recover from smaller disasters. But a lot more is needed from the nation's main disaster response agency than what it has produced so far.


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