WASHINGTON — The federal government plans to hand out debit cards worth $2,000 each to families displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff, under fire for his agency’s response to the disaster, held a conference call with governors of states with evacuees and described the plan. While many details remained to be worked out, the plan was to quickly begin distributing the cards, starting with people in major evacuation centers such as the Houston Astrodome.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the cards are aimed at providing “some immediate cash assistance to those who are in shelters, those that were evacuated.”
Republican Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who participated in the conference call, said the cards will be offered “to people in shelters as well as people who are not in shelters but who have evacuated the area and need help.” He said the hope is the cards will encourage people to leave shelters voluntarily.
Only for neediest
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is administering the program. FEMA officials said the program is aimed at those most in need, so not all families that fled their homes will be eligible.
“For instance you may have some people who have insurance and insurance is meeting their living expenses while they have been displaced,” said Ed Conley, a FEMA spokesman in Houston. “You have some people who may be looking at an option such as a cruise ship where all of their needs are going to be met. It is going to vary by family.”
The cards are to be used to help victims purchase food, transportation and other essentials.
It’s unclear how much the debit card program will cost the government, but it could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars since hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.
Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, a Republican, said he had concerns about the potential for abuse.
“That’s a lot of money. The question is how do you separate the needy from those who just want a $2,000 handout,” he said.
Photos used to curb abuse
The cards will be issued on a one-per-household basis, said Natalie Rule, a FEMA spokeswoman in Washington. As a safeguard against fraud, FEMA will use aerial photographs of devastated areas to verify that the refugees were, indeed, forced from their homes in cases where they cannot provide documents to prove their losses or identities.
“We’ve got a huge population of people that have been evacuated with very little by way of possessions and we have to have a way to make sure these people can function,” Rule said. “If there are those who are out there to cheat the system, that is going to be very disappointing. But the main goal is to get the aid out.”
Rule said the agency was setting up registration centers in shelters in Houston and Dallas where evacuees could obtain the cards.
FEMA is working to set up similar registration centers in other shelters across the country, Rule said, and evacuees can also get the debit cards by calling 1-800-621-FEMA or going to the agency’s web site at http://www.fema.gov.
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