The Federal Emergency Management Agency said yesterday that it will set aside for small companies up to $1.5 billion worth of work maintaining trailers housing Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

The money will be given out in 15 deals, worth up to $100 million each, by Feb. 1. The move comes after criticism of FEMA by Gulf Coast business and political leaders, who say small local firms have largely been left out of the recovery work as large, national companies received the biggest contracts, often without competition.

"Local, small and minority-owned businesses are playing a critical role in rebuilding the Gulf Coast," said R. David Paulison, FEMA's acting director. "Getting local businesses more heavily involved in the long-term recovery efforts will also contribute to the overall economic recovery of the region."

Companies that win the five-year deals announced yesterday will be responsible for maintenance on the 100,000 temporary housing units being set up for people displaced by the storm. The firms will also deactivate the housing, which primarily consists of trailers, when it's no longer needed.

Eight of the contracts will go to companies that have been certified by the Small Business Administration as small and "disadvantaged" -- a term that includes firms owned by women, minorities and people with disabilities. The other seven contracts will go to firms that are small but not necessarily disadvantaged. In all cases, the agency said, it will give preference to firms that are either from the Gulf Coast or have a plan for subcontracting work to local companies.

"It's logical to give the ongoing maintenance and upkeep contracts to local contractors," said Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "If someone is having trouble with their septic system, you want them there in hours, not days."

But Ashdown noted that the amount of money being targeted for local firms is still relatively little compared to the more than $60 billion Congress has already allocated for Katrina relief. "This is a slice of the contracting pie, when the local contractors deserve most of it," he said.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a written statement, "FEMA's promise to award 15 contracts in February, six months after Hurricane Katrina struck, seems like too little, too late." He said that "no process exists to ensure that Gulf Coast businesses are given priority in rebuilding their communities."