Some Questions Unanswered in Disaster Housing Plan

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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina revealed the nation's inability to house large numbers of evacuees, the Bush administration proposed a new disaster housing strategy yesterday that includes a mix of solutions tried after the storm, while leaving major blanks to be filled by the next president.

Under the draft plan, the federal government would rely again on rental vouchers, mobile homes and travel trailers in the worst emergencies. The strategy calls for states to take on greater responsibilities, while leaving it to an as-yet unnamed government-wide housing task force to tackle the hardest problems.

"We know enough to say we can't make a single plan that works across the nation," Harvey E. Johnson Jr., deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in releasing the 87-page strategy for a two-month comment period. "It's a strategy, not an operating manual, not a how-to manual."

State emergency managers and members of Congress called the report late, incomplete and underwhelming.

W. Craig Fugate, emergency manager for the state of Florida, where disaster housing is a familiar issue because of its vulnerability to hurricanes, said in a withering but typical critique, "Having to survive the disaster and then the FEMA Housing Plan may be too much to ask."

The report leaves to be developed seven annexes to address questions that Congress gave FEMA until July 2007 to answer. They include how to house disaster victims near their jobs, manage large evacuee camps, care for disabled and poor people, and repair rental housing quickly, as well as whether new laws are needed. Congress set the deadline in October 2006.

The strategy suggests that the Department of Housing and Urban Development needs new laws and funding to take the lead in providing long-term disaster housing, which the White House recommended in February 2006. However, it is unclear if the administration will propose such a package before President Bush leaves office in January, Johnson said.

The document "sadly demonstrates that [FEMA] has not learned enough from . . . history, and may be doomed to repeat it," said Sen. Mary A. Landrieu (D-La.), who heads a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee reviewing federal disaster recovery efforts.

The document underscores what current and former homeland security officials have long emphasized: that the magnitude of challenges raised by a long-term evacuation caused by a massive hurricane, earthquake or nuclear or radiological attack leaves few options.

Katrina, which hit in August 2005, displaced 770,000 people, including 500,000 for more than four months. The federal response "foundered due to inadequate planning and poor coordination," the White House later reported.

Besides wasting upward of $1 billion on unused housing units, FEMA has faced an ongoing problem of formaldehyde contamination of trailers. U.S. public health authorities recommended all trailer occupants be moved this winter after finding high levels of the toxic industrial chemical, and FEMA leaders pledged not to use trailers again.

However, the draft strategy proposes using trailers in extraordinary circumstances when no alternatives are available, for no longer than six months' use. They would be located only on private property, not group sites. They would be used only at the request of a governor, with the approval of FEMA's administrator, after states have set their own formaldehyde limit, Johnson said.


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