By Producer
NBC News
updated 12/13/2006 2:48:14 PM ET 2006-12-13T19:48:14

An antiquated computer program is to blame for thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims having their short-term housing assistance cut off by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to government attorneys who were berated in federal court Wednesday.

The attorneys were told by a judge that the agency must immediately begin reimbursing the evacuees.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, two weeks ago, ordered FEMA to restart the short-term housing aid to an estimated 5,000 evacuees of Katrina who are now living in Texas. But in court on Wednesday, government attorneys acknowledged that FEMA only has an “estimate” of those who were denied continuing housing assistance because of faulty computers at the agency.

The 18-month housing assistance program for people who lost their homes in the 2005 storm ended in August for some 5,479 evacuees living in Houston, Austin and San Antonio because FEMA found them ineligible for continued benefits. The assistance program is slated to run through February.

Problem blamed on faulty software
But when the evacuees tried to appeal the aid cutoff, FEMA phone operators could not explain to them why they were denied. Justice Department lawyers said the computer program used by FEMA to track recipients’ aid had “fields too small” to include all the information on why they were denied.

FEMA has appealed the judge’s decision to the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia, asking the court to stay his order. But Leon, who excoriated FEMA for the two-week delay, demanded that FEMA start providing housing assistance now, and not wait for the appeals court to act. The judge said, “We have people — some of them may be homeless — who need the assistance now.”

Leon also expressed his astonishment that FEMA had not begun to cull information it had recorded on why the evacuees were denied continued aid and send letters explaining the rationale for the denial, thus allowing them to appeal the agency’s decision.

“Let me make this clear, tell FEMA I expect them to get going on this immediately,” Leon told Justice Department lawyers.

FEMA cannot send direct checks
Government lawyers also told the judge that FEMA has no authority to directly send checks, approximately $750 per month per family, to the evacuees. They said that only state and local government agencies, who they said may have already discontinued their relationship with FEMA, had the ability to administer the payments.

But Michael Kirkpatrick, the attorney representing ACORN, the group that brought the suit against FEMA, said in court that he was assured by the mayor of Houston and other state officials that they were only waiting for FEMA to authorize the payments and were ready to provide them directly to the Katrina victims.

Another court hearing has been set for Monday when the judge ordered FEMA to bring its computer experts, who he expects to provide an explanation for the problems in providing adequate information.

Leon said, “We have to know who is accountable to help these people out.”

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