Video: FEMA pulling a bait and switch?

updated 9/12/2005 7:14:01 AM ET 2005-09-12T11:14:01

The federal government’s relief agency said Friday it will discontinue its program to distribute $2,000 debit cards to hurricane victims and use bank deposits instead, two days after hastily announcing the novel plan to provide quick relief.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it will scrap the program once officials finish distributing cards this weekend at shelters in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, where many of the evacuees were moved. No cards will be issued to victims in other states.

Hurricane victims at other locations will have to apply for expedited aid through the agency’s traditional route — filling out information on FEMA’s Web site to receive direct bank deposits, FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule said.

“We tried it as an innovative way to get aid to evacuee populations in Texas. We decided it would be more expeditious with direct deposits,” she said, citing the large staffing operation that would be required to replicate the Texas operation in other states.

Under fire for its initial response to the hurricane, FEMA Director Michael Brown had announced the debit card program as a way to quickly get $2,000 to the neediest families and empower them “to make their own decisions about what do they need to have to start rebuilding their lives.”

He did not describe the program as applying only to Texas, which has accepted the largest number of evacuees and is the home state of President Bush, though Rule said that always was the plan.

Riddled with confusion
The program called for debit cards to be issued to one member of each household and was aimed at people who did not have bank accounts or addresses to receive checks. The cards could be used at any ATM within 24 hours of issuance, faster than traditional FEMA aid, which can take several days or longer to process.

But from the outset, there was confusion.

Word spread quickly among the thousands of refugees in the Houston Astrodome following announcement of the program Wednesday. FEMA workers, however, were unaware of the announcement and had no cards to offer.

On Thursday, the Red Cross began distributing its own debit cards at the Astrodome. The Red Cross assigned appointment times to the refugees, but many people started lining up anyway and waited for hours. Many fainted in the heat, and police had to be brought in for crowd control.

Around Houston, poor people who heard that the government was giving out money tried to get into the Astrodome complex for cards, prompting officials to lock the gates. By Thursday evening, electronic freeway signs in Houston were flashing, “There are no debit cards at the Astrodome.”

FEMA issued 4,200 cards to families at the Astrodome on Friday, and officials said they were confident they have covered everyone still staying at the shelter.

FEMA: No reduction in benefits
Evacuees who were staying outside the main shelter and expected to get cards on Saturday or Sunday must now apply for assistance online at www.fema.gov or by calling 1-800-621-3362.

FEMA officials were concerned that people showing up at the Astrodome over the weekend might get angry when they are told they will not receive cards. Tom Costello, FEMA liaison officer for the Houston area, said FEMA workers will be on hand to help them get assistance via other methods.

“The debit card is just the third of three ways of getting the same amount of assistance,” Costello said. “The fastest or preferred way is through a bank account or by requesting a check. This is not a reduction or a change in benefits.”

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