Saturday, December 23, 2006

FEMA Not Required to Restore Aid to Evacuees, Court Rules

The New York Times
FEMA Not Required to Restore Aid to Evacuees, Court Rules

The Federal Emergency Management Agency does not have to reinstate immediately rental assistance to evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a federal appeals court in Washington ruled yesterday, reversing a decision that a lower court judge had said he hoped would “get these people a roof over their heads before Christmas.”

But FEMA still has to comply with part of the earlier order by the judge, Richard J. Leon of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, by providing families with clear explanations why they were denied assistance.

Responding to the ruling by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, FEMA officials said they would immediately suspend plans to provide the money, leading to criticism from evacuees and their advocates.

“It’s another setback,” Wanda Jones, an evacuee in Houston, said in a statement issued by Acorn, the housing advocacy group that filed the lawsuit. “It’s like a terrible roller coaster ride. Every time we go up, when we come down we lose more people.”

Last spring, FEMA began notifying thousands of families who were given emergency shelter after the storms that they did not qualify for long-term help in the form of rent and utility payments, shocking many families who had been given housing vouchers good for a year.

Those families were allowed to appeal the agency’s decision, but many said they received confusing, contradictory or incomplete instructions as they tried to do so.

In a preliminary injunction, issued on Nov. 29, Judge Leon said the agency’s appeals process was so confusing that it denied evacuees their constitutional right to due process, and he ordered FEMA to immediately restore benefits, make retroactive payments and improve the appeals process. The appeals court stayed the first two parts of the injunction.

Aaron Walker, FEMA’s chief spokesman, said the agency had already complied with the other part of the order. The agency “reached out to every household affected by the district court’s order to more clearly identify their reason for ineligibility, outline the required remedies and allow them an additional 60 days to file an appeal with FEMA,” he said.

The new order is temporary because the case has not yet gone to trial.