Landrieu, Barbour: FEMA to announce extension of housing aid

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Federal Emergency Management Agency intends to extend by at least six months its transitional housing assistance program for Gulf Coast residents displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The program was scheduled to expire next month, potentially displacing more than 100,000 households from FEMA-funded trailers, mobile homes and rental units, Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office said.

Aaron Walker, a national spokesman for FEMA, confirmed the extension Friday afternoon, soon after Landrieu, D-New Orleans, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour announced it in separate news releases.

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“We have always recognized the overwhelming burden that this (storm) has placed on disaster victims,” Walker said. “We’re committed to the recovery of the Gulf Coast region, and we recognize that housing is one of the region’s greatest challenges. We felt like a six-month extension was certainly appropriate in this situation.”

Landrieu said she got the word from FEMA director David Paulison in an afternoon briefing and that a formal announcement would be made by FEMA next week.

“In our conversation this afternoon, I thanked Director Paulison for committing to this necessary extension of the housing assistance program, and reminded him that the road to recovery is long and we still have an enormous number of difficult challenges ahead,” Landrieu said.

“I am grateful the Bush Administration has granted this necessary extension of the temporary housing program. Even though the number of Mississippians relying on this program is reduced each month as housing is rebuilt, it is clear thousands of our citizens will be without permanent housing six months from now.”

Housing advocates had been pushing for the extension. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now had scheduled a Monday news conference to urge the extension.

Gwendolyn Adams, ACORN’s co-chair for New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, an area devastated by the storm, said she was “elated” by FEMA’s decision.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” Adams said. “FEMA has finally made a decision that benefits those displaced by this storm. It’s just a wonderful thing that somebody’s decided to do something for people for a change.”

Gov. Kathleen Blanco echoed Adams’ delight with the decision. “This is wonderful news for our displaced citizens still working to get back home. It also shows this historic recovery effort is beyond the scope of federal rules, and as we forge ahead I hope the federal government will continue working with us as we rebuild our communities.”

The extension eases pressures on some past recipients of the aid who were deemed ineligible and were appealing that decision.

In December, under a court order, FEMA sent letters to about 4,000 storm victims in Texas, explaining why they were deemed no longer eligible for aid. A federal judge ruled the original letters unconstitutional because they contained only hard-to-decipher computer codes and agency jargon.

With the new letters, storm victims can appeal the decision to FEMA and may be eligible for renewed housing payments of about $750 a month.

The appeal process can take up to three months, which would have left many of the storm victims out of luck had the program not been extended beyound February.

Walker said the court decision was not the reason for the extension.