Order Shows FEMA Aid Shortcomings

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006

In denouncing the way the Bush administration has denied aid to tens of thousands of victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a federal judge in Washington last week pulled back the curtain on a deeper mystery 15 months after the nation's costliest natural disaster:

What has happened to 2.6 million households that applied for disaster assistance but have been largely shed from the rolls?

The numbers, recently disclosed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are striking. FEMA projects that fewer than 4,700 families -- less than one-fourth of 1 percent -- will reach a $26,200 cap on all post-disaster aid by March, when an 18-month statutory cutoff takes effect. The figures are all the more surprising given the storms' scope, the incomplete reconstruction of New Orleans and the demographic profile of evacuees, who tended to be poorer and less well-insured and to have higher jobless rates than other Americans.

Anti-poverty advocates say FEMA's policies, combined with inadequate computer systems and support staff, unfairly pushed thousands of disaster victims toward homelessness, slowed the recovery of New Orleans and saddled cities such as Houston and Austin with housing crises. The critics cite damning federal court findings, FEMA policy reversals, and reports by Texas and Louisiana housing officials and lawyers that the government's actions hit the poor especially hard.

"I cannot name another circumstance when so many public servants have worked so hard to provide such dehumanizing and shoddy service to citizens who were entitled to basic help and deserved fundamental respect," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a liberal housing advocacy group that has led the clash with FEMA. The coalition is pushing to extend the 18-month federal limit on aid, lift the $26,200 cap and expand a Housing and Urban Development disaster program, as advocates for the poor want.

Defenders of the Bush administration see good news in the drop. Those still receiving aid were the most dependent before the storms, mostly single mothers on welfare, while the rest are back on their feet, said Ronald D. Utt, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"From a human-suffering point of view, I think it's good news," Utt said. Lower-income people would struggle to pay higher rents in New Orleans while looking for work, he said, so "a lot of people have simply found it easier to stay where they are, which are probably places of greater opportunity than New Orleans."

FEMA Director R. David Paulison, at a speech to the National Press Club on Thursday, defended the agency's efforts, while warning the new Democratic Congress, which plans to hold hearings.

"No good deed goes unpunished," Paulison said, adding that FEMA helped more people than it ever has despite overwhelmed systems, huge work volumes and pressure to fight victim fraud. "We felt like we did a good job."

He added: "We have to resist the call for additional investigations unless they're based on new evidence and allegations. Rather than conduct additional studies, inquiries, analysis that look backward and tell us what we really already know, we should continue to focus on correcting the problems."

The controversy stems from the Bush administration's improvised housing programs last year. After committing billions for trailers and mobile homes that were heavily criticized, the government paid for 145,000 hotel rooms and apartments. But it soon phased out those costlier measures in favor of giving victims rent money for three-month periods, pending recertification.

But the recertification requirement coincided in steep drop-offs. FEMA declined to release monthly tracking data of the use and denial rates.

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