In denouncing the way the Bush administration has denied aid to tens of thousands of victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a federal judge in Washington last week pulled back the curtain on a deeper mystery 15 months after the nation's costliest natural disaster:
What has happened to 2.6 million households that applied for disaster assistance but have been largely shed from the rolls?
The numbers, recently disclosed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are striking. FEMA projects that fewer than 4,700 families will reach a $26,200 cap on all post-disaster aid by March, when an 18-month statutory cutoff takes effect -- less than one-fourth of 1 percent. The figures are all the more surprising given the storms' scope, the incomplete reconstruction of New Orleans and the demographic profile of evacuees, who tended to be poorer and less well-insured and to have higher jobless rates than other Americans.
To anti-poverty advocates, FEMA's policies, combined with inadequate computer systems and support staff, unfairly pushed thousands of disaster victims toward homelessness, slowed the recovery of New Orleans and saddled cities such as Houston and Austin with housing crises. The critics cite damning federal court findings, FEMA policy reversals, and reports by Texas and Louisiana housing officials and lawyers that the government's actions hit the poor especially hard.
"I cannot name another circumstance when so many public servants have worked so hard to provide such dehumanizing and shoddy service to citizens who were entitled to basic help and deserved fundamental respect," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a liberal housing advocacy group that has led the clash with FEMA. The coalition is pushing to extend the 18-month federal limit on aid, lift the $26,200 cap and expand a Housing and Urban Development disaster program as advocates for the poor want.
Bush administration defenders see good news in the drop. Those still receiving aid were most dependent before Katrina, mostly single mothers on welfare, while the rest are back on their feet, said Ronald D. Utt, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank.
"From a human suffering point of view, I think it's good news," Utt said. Even for lower-income people who would struggle to pay higher rents in New Orleans while looking for work, he said, "a lot of people have simply found it easier to stay where they are, which are probably places of greater opportunity than New Orleans."
FEMA Director R. David Paulison, at a speech Thursday to the National Press Club, defended FEMA's efforts, while warning a new Democratic Congress that plans to hold hearings.
"No good deed goes unpunished," Paulison said, adding that FEMA helped more people than it ever has despite overwhelmed systems, huge work volumes and pressure to fight victim fraud. "We felt like we did a good job."
But, he also said: "We have to resist the call for additional investigations unless they're based on new evidence and allegations. Rather than conduct additional studies, inquiries, analysis that look backward and tell us what we really already know, we should continue to focus on correcting the problems."
The controversy stems from the Bush administration's improvised housing programs last year. After committing billions for trailers and mobile homes that were heavily criticized, the government paid for 145,000 hotel rooms and apartments. But it soon phased out those costlier measures in favor of giving victims rent money for three-month periods, pending recertification.
But the recertification requirement coincided in steep drop-offs. FEMA declined to release monthly tracking data of the use and denial rates. Spokesman Jim McIntyre cited the difficulty of producing the data from antiquated computer systems and referred requests to FEMA's heavily backlogged Freedom of Information Act Office. FEMA also declined to provide an official to comment for this report, citing pending litigation.
But periodic updates show that by May, only one-third of households that received rental aid sought recertification, and of 246,786 who requested it 75 percent, or 180,636, were approved. By Oct. 19, only 5 percent of the 720,590 households remained eligible for aid nationwide, or 33,889 families. (Another 108,088 families are in FEMA-provided trailers and mobile homes near their homes on the Gulf coast.) Analysts estimate each household includes nearly three people.
By summer, four out of five recertification requests were denied, said Heather Godwin, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. Advocates and court records show that FEMA refused, against agency rules, to give aid to more than one member of a family, even if they were separated across the country, and that the agency concluded erroneously that many pre-storm homes were not severely damaged and relied on computer systems that were unable to keep track of applicants' documents and were plagued by overloaded workers' data-entry errors.
Other bureaucratic measures, designed to combat abuse, required applicants to provide written documentation of pre-storm housing payments, which was unavailable to some emergency evacuees, or to meet inspectors even if they were living miles away.
Applicants sometimes got unclear or contradictory notice and advice from FEMA, resulting in what U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon concluded last week was a "Kafkaesque" process.
Liberal analysts also cite other indicators that aid cutoffs are leading to de facto relocation decisions as poor families are unable to get back to New Orleans and are beginning to seek local aid where they are. In Austin, the wait list for public housing has grown from 8,200 to 10,000 families, Godwin said.
In New Orleans, people working to curb homelessness say that an emergency-housing program funded to help 45 families drew 300 applicants this summer and that programs are seeing as many clients in two months seeking help as they usually do in a year.
Barbara Sard, housing analyst for the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, noted that more than 50 percent of 35,000-plus evacuee families that ended up in Houston remain on FEMA rental assistance. But less than 2 percent of evacuee families who landed elsewhere in the country retained eligibility.
Part of the reason is that Houston took in some of the poorest evacuees. But the city, led by Mayor Bill White, has also pushed hardest to help and advocate for its storm victims. In October, the city lobbied FEMA to extend rental aid to 15,000 families through March, noting the failure of the agency, the city and applicants to navigate FEMA's recertification rules.
"It certainly suggests to me that it isn't so much about the people as it is about the process. . . . These people were visible because they had the local government behind them," Sard said. "How many people didn't reapply because they thought they weren't eligible, because they couldn't get through the phone system, because they didn't have a piece of paper that said what they had paid for rent before? . . . FEMA set up a nonsensical, impossible system."