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Originally published Thursday, November 30, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Judge orders FEMA to resume payments to Katrina victims

Condemning the bureaucracy at the Federal Emergency Management Agency as "Kafkaesque," a federal judge Wednesday ordered the government...

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Condemning the bureaucracy at the Federal Emergency Management Agency as "Kafkaesque," a federal judge Wednesday ordered the government to resume housing payments to Gulf Coast residents who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina.

Barely six months after Katrina ravaged the region, FEMA ended benefit payments to several thousand families still in temporary housing and unable to return to their homes.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said the agency had violated the evacuees' rights by not adequately explaining why it was ending the benefits, and by making it difficult for storm victims to appeal the decisions.

"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," he wrote.

Leon ordered the agency to explain its actions, restore short-term benefits to evacuees who had been cut off and give them the two months of housing payments they would have received after payments finally stopped in August 2006. The ruling affects 11,000 families, mostly in Louisiana and Texas.

The judge cited letters from FEMA that gave contradictory explanations for decisions.

The judge quoted one evacuee telling of her efforts to get her benefits restored:

"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," Carmen Handy wrote to the court. "Every time I call back, the person answering the call knows nothing about what the previous person told me."

FEMA's critics in Congress used the opportunity presented by the ruling to call for changes.

"While this is a victory for the thousands who lost their homes during Hurricane Katrina, it is also a reminder that the system is still in desperate need of reform," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees FEMA. "It is unacceptable to force overburdened victims to navigate through bureaucratic red tape to find out whether they will ever have a place to go home to."

Under FEMA's transitional-housing program for victims of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, evacuees were entitled to financial assistance either for 18 months or to a maximum of $26,200.

After Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, FEMA began providing victims with short-term housing assistance. In February 2006, it attempted to transfer eligible evacuees to a longer-term assistance program, which required recipients to meet certain criteria, but denied thousands of their applications, according to Leon's ruling. After a 30-day notice period, FEMA cut their short-term benefits as well.

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Stephen Bradberry, head organizer for the New Orleans chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, an advocacy group that filed the lawsuit, said the ruling "allows families more time to try and take care of their affairs. And it will buy more time to put pressure on the government to step up to the plate and handle its responsibilities."

FEMA press secretary Aaron Walker said the agency's "emergency-sheltering initiative was conceived as a compassionate but short-term solution to shelter evacuees. By law, sheltering assistance can be provided for only a limited period of time."

He added that FEMA had always intended to transfer eligible evacuees to the long-term benefits program.

"However," he said, "some individuals and households do not qualify."

Housing advocates said the agency's decisions about eligibility were arbitrary at best.

"They classified people on the basis of what kind of aid they got and what their perceived status was going forward. If you didn't fit a category you were cut off, and the appeals process was a joke," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

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