The Federal Emergency Management Agency is restricting the release of information on Hurricane Katrina evacuees, complicating efforts by families to find loved ones and by law enforcement officials searching for parolees and convicted sex offenders.
Citing privacy concerns, FEMA has rejected a request by Texas officials for access to its database of the more than 100,000 evacuees who have registered for state aid, according to the governor's office. FEMA has also declined requests from five states to cross-check a database of convicted sex offenders and parolees against a list of evacuees requesting federal assistance, law enforcement officials said.
FEMA officials have started prohibiting workers at a large shelter here from sharing information about evacuees even with family members unless the evacuees had signed release forms. In many cases, relief workers said, such forms were lost or never presented in the chaos of the exodus. FEMA authorities made similar restrictions last week when they took over management of shelters in Beaumont, Tex.
"If we find someone, we've been instructed to tell family members, 'He or she is alive and well in San Antonio,' and that's it," said Rene Gauna, a San Antonio city employee working at a FEMA-managed shelter at the old Kelly Air Force Base. "We're no longer allowed to release new addresses or telephone numbers or tell people where their loved ones have moved."
Jack Heesch, a FEMA spokesman in San Antonio, said it is standard agency policy not to release "any information on anyone" in order to protect a person's privacy, a position generally supported by civil liberties groups. He said FEMA is prohibited from releasing information on Katrina's victims even to prevent "double-dipping" -- the abuse of federal aid by victims -- or to facilitate family reunification.
Federal privacy law is intended to protect people from identity theft and other violations of their personal information, but state aid officials say it should be balanced against the scope of Katrina's impact.
FEMA is beginning to take over more shelters to lessen the financial burden on states and communities, prompting concern that it will become even more difficult for families to find loved ones.
Edwin Coleman's family has already run into obstacles. Coleman, 80, a retired inventory clerk, was rescued from his New Orleans home four days after Katrina flooded the city. His daughter, Edwina Coleman, had been looking for him ever since and heard from friends that he was in San Antonio. When she contacted the city's biggest shelter, officials refused to release any information on her father, saying they could not find proof that Coleman had signed a privacy waiver.
After questions from a Washington Post reporter on Monday, the shelter released information on Coleman and the two were reunited by telephone. "I'm glad I was found," chuckled Coleman, who said he signed a waiver but it apparently was lost. "People have been good to me, but things have been awfully confusing."
"We were doing these kind of ad hoc reunifications all the time before FEMA came in," said Gauna, the San Antonio official. "Now we've been told it's against the law."
Since the hurricane, Web sites with information about evacuees have become common. Private sites, such as one managed by the Red Cross, and those of state governments provide a varying degree of information about evacuees. Some include new addresses and telephone numbers. Others include little other than a name and last known residence.
Arkansas maintains an extensive Web site with detailed information on 29,000 evacuees. No privacy waivers were sought "because the benefits in this case so outweighed the risks," said Alice Stewart, spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Huckabee (R).
The Red Cross says on its site that all the information was obtained through waivers. Privately, several Red Cross officials acknowledged that in the rush to facilitate family reunifications and care for Katrina's victims many waivers were not signed or were lost.
Shannon Perez, Texas communications director for Service Employees International Union, one of the nation's largest labor organizations, has faced similar obstacles trying to find 314 members from New Orleans who are believed to be in Texas. Perez said she wants to find them because the union has raised $1 million for SEIU members victimized by the hurricane.
"We have money for these folks, but we can't access the information," she said. "Either the databases are incomplete or we're not allowed to find out where our members are."
For law enforcement, the lack of access to FEMA information is also an irritant. Louisiana has provided states with a list of the 1,340 convicted sex offenders and 10,000 parolees who were registered in New Orleans.
Criminal background checks
In some regions, law enforcement officials met planeloads of Katrina evacuees and ran criminal background checks on all of them, prompting criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union. This occurred in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Kentucky and other states to which evacuees from the hurricane zone were airlifted.
"If a busload of seniors went to Texas to see a Cowboys game, would they do a background check on them? Why are these people any different?" asked Christopher Calabrese, a lawyer at ACLU headquarters in New York.
Local prosecutors have requested that FEMA cross-check its database with one that includes convicted sex offenders and parolees but have been rebuffed. In a conference call Oct. 3 with representatives of law enforcement agencies from Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Florida and Texas and from the Department of Justice, the federal lawyer wanted to focus on the potential for fraud in the post-hurricane recovery. But, said Cliff Herberg, the first assistant district attorney in Texas's Bexar County, the call was quickly hijacked by local law enforcement concerns about potential criminals.
With a database of approximately 30,000 evacuees in San Antonio, FEMA by far has the most accurate knowledge of who is in his region, he said. "We are not proposing background checks on everyone. We just want known parolees and sex offenders, and FEMA won't do it."
Herberg said law enforcement can be exempted from the privacy act when it demonstrates a need. "This is not a fishing expedition," he said. "We are putting these people in homes and shelters across the nation. We have the Louisiana lists. We've got to know who they are."