Texas Seeks FEMA Housing Aid

Residents in Galveston begin the recuperation process as they are now able to return and see what has been destroyed and what can be salvaged more than a week after Hurricane Ike made landfall.
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Texas leaders asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency yesterday for trailers and other temporary housing for tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced by Hurricane Ike, but FEMA officials said they would not provide trailers because they don't meet state health requirements.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas, making an urgent plea for aid, said that 10,000 to 20,000 of the coastal city's 57,000 residents lost homes to the Sept. 13 storm, and that nearly one-third of the city will not be habitable for months.

Across Texas, about 12,000 residents remain in shelters, and more than 20,000 are expected to need disaster housing, said Steve McCraw, the state's homeland security director. Outside Galveston, the need for housing is most critical in Orange, on the border with Louisiana. The city suffered severe damage during the storm, McCraw said, and hotel rooms and vacant apartments are scarce.

"It's going to take us months until Galveston, Orange and other heavily impacted areas are habitable," Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) said. "We are going to make a request to FEMA today for trailers. . . . As long as those trailers meet our state safety requirements, we want every one that we can get our hands on."

But FEMA Deputy Administrator Harvey E. Johnson Jr. said through a spokesman that although the agency would provide some temporary housing -- such as 1,000 pad-mounted mobile homes, beginning this weekend -- it would not provide trailers because they have elevated levels of formaldehyde, a toxic chemical linked to respiratory illness. U.S. public health authorities recommended in February that victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita abandon the trailers they have been living in since the 2005 storms devastated the Gulf Coast.

The contradictory messages reflect tense behind-the-scenes talks between FEMA and Texas officials, overseen by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), over the political and legal liability of using trailers. They also underscored how authorities continue to struggle to improvise a national disaster housing plan, more than three years after Katrina exposed glaring weaknesses in government preparations for such a task.

Katrina destroyed or damaged 300,000 homes along the Gulf Coast. In response, FEMA wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on cruise ships, military barracks, hotel rooms and mobile homes, and on hastily awarded contracts.

Congress and President Bush enacted legislation in January 2006 ordering FEMA to develop a national disaster housing strategy. But a draft version that FEMA released in the summer, 21 months past its due date, remains incomplete.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), chairman of the Senate disaster recovery subcommittee that heard testimony from Texas officials, called the administration's failure to develop better temporary housing "wholly unacceptable."

Congressional aides said House and Senate appropriators had prepared an aid program costing $22 billion to $23 billion that would pay for damage from Ike, Hurricane Gustav, which struck Louisiana Sept. 1, and this summer's California wildfires and Midwestern floods. The sum would include $7.9 billion to replenish FEMA's disaster recovery fund, whose balance is down to $1 billion, and $6.5 billion in community development grants.

Texas released a preliminary damage estimate from Ike of $11.4 billion and climbing, not counting Galveston's claim for $2.4 billion in federal reimbursement or the damage estimate for Houston, which Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) said would exceed $2.3 billion.

In a letter yesterday to FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) reiterated the state's "critical" need for temporary disaster housing and noted that FEMA had said it could not provide housing that met state health requirements.

Houston Mayor Bill White said the nation's fourth-largest city had plenty of housing stock available and would be best served by a federal rental voucher program for homeowners and renters. FEMA is paying for hotel rooms for about 4,000 households displaced by Ike from Texas and Louisiana, Johnson said.

"It is far cheaper for Houston than a system of trailers or hotels," White told Landrieu's panel. "Let FEMA craft the program with local authorities who will administer it."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company