FEMA ordered to resume Katrina housing payments

Published 4:45 pm Friday, December 1, 2006

The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday he was disappointed that a judge, in a sharply critical ruling, ordered the agency to resume housing aid to thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

“It’s almost a thing of no good deed goes unpunished,” Director R. David Paulison told reporters at the National Press Club. “We felt like we did a good job.”

The decision was one of two court battles won by Hurricane Katrina victims this week, but both could prove short-lived. The other ruling was against insurance companies.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon’s ruling Wednesday criticized FEMA for cutting housing funding and subjecting victims of the 2005 storm to a convoluted application process he called “Kafkaesque.”

Leon said FEMA mishandled the transition from a short-term housing program to a longer-term program this spring and summer.

FEMA officials, already under fire for responding too slowly to the storm, said the agency sent letters outlining the program changes, explaining why some people were ineligible and describing the appeals process.

Leon, however, said those letters contained only program codes and agency jargon and did not explain anything. Some evacuees got multiple letters with conflicting information, he said, leaving families unable to understand why their aid was being cut.

Until FEMA explains itself and allows victims to appeal, Leon said the government must keep making housing payments.

“It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights,” Leon wrote.

Paulison said he thought the agency handled the situation correctly. “We used the same forms that we have used for decades,” he said Thursday.

In his ruling, Leon cited statements submitted by evacuees describing the ordeal.

“The reasons I have been given for the termination are not what is in the documents and/or the reasons change each time I call,” said Carmen Handy, an evacuee whose statement was cited. “Every time I call back, the person answering the call knows nothing about what the previous person told me.”

Leon’s ruling came in a case brought in August by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which said more than 11,000 families would be affected. FEMA did not immediately have data on how much the ruling would cost and said it was considering its legal options.

ACORN Spokesman Charles D. Jackson said the advocacy group was trying to spread word about the ruling through the scattered communities of evacuees, some of whom were left homeless by FEMA’s decisions.

“Because the government didn’t do their job, we’re suffering,” said Carolyn Stevens, a Katrina evacuee living in Houston.

Other evacuees sided with FEMA and said the program has been going on long enough.

“It’s really making them lazy. They need to get back to work,” said Lela Logan, a New Orleans native who said she got a job and rebuilt her life in Houston.

In the other case, on Monday, a federal judge in Louisiana said that many homeowners might be entitled to more insurance money for flood damage. Insurers pledged to appeal.

U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. sided with New Orleans homeowners who argued that the language in some insurance policies that excluded water damage was ambiguous. He said a suit against The Allstate Corp., The St. Paul Travelers Companies Inc. and other insurers could go forward.

Duval said the policies did not distinguish between floods caused by an act of God — such as excessive rainfall — and floods caused by an act of man, which would include the levee breaches following Katrina’s landfall on Aug. 29, 2005.

If successful, this suit could cost insurers $1 billion in Louisiana alone, industry officials said, and could lead to similar suits elsewhere.