FEMA May Be Unable to Provide Emergency Housing After Catastrophe, IG Says

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

U.S. authorities remain unable to provide emergency housing after large-scale catastrophes and must do more to prepare survivors of such disasters for permanent relocation, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general is expected to tell a House panel today.

Nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed or damaged 300,000 homes on the Gulf Coast and led to billions of dollars of waste in the diaspora that followed, federal homeland security officials could face a repeat scenario if another storm struck a major coastal city or a high-magnitude earthquake hit population centers in California or the Midwest, according to prepared testimony by Inspector General Richard L. Skinner.

In the remarks, released by the House Homeland Security Committee, Skinner says the Federal Emergency Management Agency can manage the response to typical disasters -- for example, handing out $326 million in housing and other aid after Hurricane Ike struck Galveston in September 2008.

But FEMA's reliance on costly programs to provide trailers and mobile homes to survivors, and the government's inability to swiftly and cheaply repair damaged housing, especially rental units, mean the agency is not up to handling a Katrina-scale event, Skinner is expected to say.

"FEMA does not have sufficient tools, operational procedures, and legislative authorities to aggressively promote the cost-effective repair of housing stocks," Skinner will say, according to the testimony. "All other housing decisions and programs hinge on this single variable."

State and local officials tend to resist restoring low-cost housing because of the impact on property owners, Skinner says, leaving relocation as the cheapest answer.

When housing cannot be restored quickly, authorities must say clearly that "there is not enough housing stock for everyone, and that some will need to relocate to other communities," Skinner is expected to say.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House panel, said the government failed to heed similar lessons after Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992.

Since Katrina, the federal government has spent nearly $25 billion on individual aid, emergency housing and rebuilding block grants. Even so, 46 months later, 20,000 families still live in temporary mobile homes and apartments, while a housing shortage has driven up rent by nearly 50 percent and stalled New Orleans' recovery.

FEMA spent as much as $100,000 or more per unit to buy, place and maintain temporary trailers and mobile homes, many of which turned out to emit unhealthy levels of formaldehyde gas, and is still spending $100 million a year to store 100,000 empty units.

"Why do we spend as much on temporary housing as we do in getting people back in permanent housing?" Thompson said in an interview. "I think we all would agree and hope to get our FEMA director to just say that the present effort towards temporary housing is not working."

A federal task force of health, housing, veterans and small business agencies began meeting this spring to study disaster housing, but the group's work is expected to take years.

In his planned testimony, recently confirmed FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate calls temporary housing a "last resort" but says it is often the only option. FEMA has contracts worth up to $1 billion for low-formaldehyde trailers and mobile homes and is testing prototypes of seven alternative types of housing that are being occupied by students year-round for evaluation.

"Let me make one thing perfectly clear," he said in submitted testimony, "Disaster housing . . . is not a mission that FEMA can or will ever be able to handle alone."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company