Ike aid rejections have FEMA changing its ways
GALVESTON — Federal Emergency Management Agency officials denied at least 85 percent of requests for temporary housing assistance after Hurricane Ike, rejecting many claims "unfairly and erroneously," according to a report by the Texas housing agency.
In response to the report, FEMA told the Houston Chronicle on Thursday that it is changing its policies.
"Under our new leadership, FEMA has made it a top priority to improve the way we communicate with and serve disaster survivors," spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said.
The agency is criticized sharply for its lack of transparency in "Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing," a report released last month by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs and the Texas Department of Rural Affairs and written with assistance from local governments and two low-income housing advocacy groups.
The report says FEMA denied half of the assistance requests from victims of Hurricane Dolly, which struck the Rio Grande Valley in July 2008. Ike made landfall on Galveston Island two months later.
FEMA declared homes habitable that had been condemned by city inspectors, declared unsafe by Child Protective Services or were inaccessible to the disabled, the report said.
Although FEMA was not the central focus of the report, which examined barriers to low-income housing, it puts an official government stamp on criticism of federal disaster policy that had circulated among local disaster officials and nonprofits providing assistance to hurricane victims.
"We've got hundreds of thousands of individuals who were affected" by questionable FEMA policies, said Buddy Grantham, Houston's representative on the Hurricane Ike Recovery Committee.
In most cases, the report said, applicants were turned down based on an inspector's judgment of "deferred maintenance," a term for disrepair existing before a disaster.
FEMA's refusal in 2009 to reveal its criteria for deferred maintenance led a federal judge to order it to publish clear standards. The order was overturned on appeal and the case is pending.
"That issue of FEMA denials and deferred maintenance was probably the most significant issue to get around to get homes repaired," said Harold Fattig, Texas southern regional director of Catholic Charities.
Critics also accuse FEMA of using hurriedly trained contract inspectors who are paid per inspection and have an incentive to work quickly.
After absorbing up to a quarter-million evacuees from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Houston officials began to get complaints that FEMA was asking evacuees to return to homes that were uninhabitable.
Houston sent Grantham and six city inspectors to New Orleans in 2006 to see if evacuees could return to their homes. They found FEMA inspectors were wrong or their decisions suspect in two-thirds of their inspections.
"It was horrendously wrong," Grantham said.
Grantham said the problem persisted after Ike.
"We had people who had a tree through their homes or roof that FEMA thought was a habitable house," said Grantham, now the city's veterans' affairs director.
Recusen, the FEMA spokeswoman, said the agency will now provide a clear explanation of why an applicant was denied assistance and will explain their right to appeal.
The state report also criticizes requirements designed to make sure disaster victims don't receive more money than they need.
The 1988 Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act states that victims may not receive aid more than once for the same claim. To comply, FEMA requires those receiving immediate emergency assistance after a disaster to account for the money in order to qualify for long-term repairs.
The report says it's unreasonable to expect low-income victims to retain receipts, often for years. It says the state, local government and advocates "should join together in requesting (federal officials) to provide a less Draconian interpretation of the duplication of benefits."
Fattig of Catholic Charities said some low-income home owners were desperately in need of food or medicine after the storm and used FEMA aid for these necessities instead of home repair. FEMA wants that money repaid before the homeowners are eligible for long-term housing assistance that became available nearly two years after the storm.
A HUD spokesman said, "We've provided guidance to make these policies more humane, but the law is clear. Our obligation is to make certain taxpayer dollars aren't spent for the same thing twice."
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