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Group of disabled residents file suit against FEMA

Eleven disabled Gulf Coast residents have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency, contending the agency failed to provide them suitable housing after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

FEMA agreed to a settlement requiring it to provide more handicap-accessible trailers. A judge will decide if the settlement is fair after a Sept. 26 hearing in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.

One of the plaintiffs is Claire Brou, a 78-year-old retired U.S. Air Force captain who is a well-known citizen in Ocean Springs. She regularly attends City Hall meetings and keeps a close tab on her neighborhood. She relies on a scooter because she is paralyzed on her right side.

According to court papers, FEMA during the last week of September 2005 provided Brou with a trailer that had a door too narrow for her scooter to pass through.

The agency gave her a second trailer in October, but the door handle on it was on the wrong side for Brou to use because of her paralysis. The inside was too narrow for her to turn her scooter around and it did not have a roll-in shower. She could only access the bed from the foot, and had to call 911 for assistance one night after she fell.

Cary LaCheen, a lawyer with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice who worked on the case, said other disabled people may not have the wherewithal to fight for their rights.

“There are a lot of other people out there who are still waiting or have given up waiting or are living in something that isn’t accessible because they were told by a contractor when a trailer was delivered ’Take it or leave it.’ “

Other disabled south Mississippi residents who sued the federal agency were Eugene Joseph Johnson of Bay St. Louis and Terry West of Kiln.

Their lawyers contended that FEMA violated the Fair Housing Act, the Architectural Barriers Act and other federal laws.

Under terms of the settlement, FEMA denies any liability and maintains that it administered its programs in a lawful manner.

However, the agency has agreed to:

— Publicize how it will assist disabled individuals with temporary housing.

— Establish a toll-free telephone number for the disabled to call.

— Require that 10 percent of trailers ordered comply with Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards.

— Hire a separate contractor to assist handicapped individuals.

— Make sure more than 5 percent of trailers in group sites are handicap accessible and appoint a third party to resolve disputes between the agency and handicapped individuals.