VERBATIM

'Obfuscation' By FEMA Hurt Katrina Victims

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. issued a 44-page decision Friday on a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims seeking disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The case had forced FEMA to make numerous changes in its housing aid programs for Gulf Coast residents in recent months, widening eligibility guidelines, clarifying public notices and extending a hotel subsidy program until FEMA could determine whether people displaced by the storm qualified for other rental aid.

In the ruling, Duval, of the Eastern District of Louisiana, denied claims for increased aid and notices of benefits, found FEMA did not discriminate on economic or other grounds, and said delays were "inevitable," given the consequences of the storm. But the judge upheld the right of storm victims to sue FEMA for temporary housing assistance and ruled that the agency was not immune to review by the courts, as the government had argued.

Finally, addressing Congress, Duval excoriated FEMA for its treatment of victims, saying that while legal, the agency denied help to Americans at their hour of greatest need.

-- Spencer Hsu

Here are some excerpts:

The Court hesitates to seemingly "reward" FEMA for what could be considered cagey behavior with regards to FEMA's ever-changing requirements, as undoubtedly, as the Court has previously found, FEMA's indecision and internal bureaucratic bumbling has strained even the most patient of citizens. But based on the evidence presented, plaintiffs have failed to assert a cognizable due process claim on the issue of notice. . . .

However, while FEMA may not be legally required to notify applicants or recipients of assistance about what FEMA provides, much less provide any data regarding its availability or the requirements for obtaining such assistance, one can only wonder why FEMA would choose to not do so, as has so often been the case herein.

It defies reason that a federal agency whose exclusive provision -- and indeed, sole reason for existence -- is to assist fellow Americans in a time of natural disaster in meeting their utmost needs would fail to notify people of the available services and the requirements for engaging those services, in some clear, consistent, and accessible way.

It also defies reason that such an agency would be seemingly more concerned with fraud on the individual level than with actually helping those persons whose lives have been literally turned upside down through no fault of their own. It is the Court's determined opinion that the vast majority of Americans, including plaintiffs, do not expect the federal government to right all wrongs nor support them indefinitely, nor even attempt to make them anywhere near "whole" after a disaster. Clearly such outcomes are simply impractical.

However, certainly it would seem that FEMA would at least try to make things clear for those for whom it was created to serve. . . . [D]efendants must not forget that the foundations of all of these institutions, including our own government and FEMA itself, are individual people -- human beings who must also be cared for, equally, equitably, and fairly.

Rather than hiding behind bureaucratic double-talk, obscure regulations, outdated computer programs, and politically loaded platitudes such as "people need to take care of themselves," as the face of the federal government in the aftermath of Katrina, FEMA's goal should have been to foster an environment of openness and honesty with all Americans affected by the disaster. Sharing information in simple, clear, and precise terms and delineating the terms and conditions of available assistance in an up-front and forthright manner, does just that.

Despite the voluminous "administrative record" provided to the Court by FEMA, and despite FEMA's stated good intentions to the contrary, the Court has seen scant evidence that any such desire for openness and clarity guided any of FEMA's communications, and this obfuscation has acted much to the detriment of plaintiffs, and indeed, the entire country.

Nevertheless, the Court finds that FEMA is not legally required to notify applicants or recipients of assistance about what FEMA provides or how to obtain such assistance. Regrettably this Court must leave any dissatisfaction with the law in this regard for those in the legislative branch to remedy.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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