Homeless Katrina Survivors denied Stafford Act's 18 month of housing

C.C. Campbell-Rock
Date Published: 
February 15, 2006


Homeless Katrina survivors denied Stafford Act's 18 months of housing
Feds are keeping many survivor benefits secret

While 12,000 families and hurricane survivors, evicted by FEMA from hotels and motels, joined the swelling ranks of America's homeless and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee members sat dumbstruck from the magnitude of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's bungling of the Katrina disaster, few news reports, if any, scrutinized the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, known as the Stafford Act.

"Katrina, alone, was one of most damaging storms to strike America. It caused 990 miles of damage. It caused 770,000 people to evacuate and damaged 300,000 homes or 11 times as many as Hurricane Andrew destroyed," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last Tuesday, addressing the annual Emergency Management Association conference.

"This is the hundred-year storm everybody feared. This is what we have to prepare for, another hundred-year storm or comparable natural or man-made disaster."
Yet FEMA, the White House and elected officials investigating what went wrong in the government's response to Hurricane Katrina remain silent about enforcing the Stafford Act, which is designed to help disaster victims rebuild their lives, post-disaster.

Under the law, individuals, families and businesses may be eligible for federal assistance if they live, own a business or work in a county declared a major disaster area, incur sufficient property damage or loss, and, depending on the type of assistance, do not have the insurance or other resources to meet their needs.

The Stafford Act authorizes the federal government to provide fair market value housing assistance to disaster victims for up to 18 months. And it authorizes grants for housing repairs and, under certain conditions, grants to purchase homes. The law also makes available disaster-related medical, dental and funeral services, disaster unemployment assistance, crisis counseling and a right to legal services, among other benefits.

While the Stafford Act offers real assistance to disaster victims, FEMA and the feds are not singing its praises nor honoring its legal mandates. Moreover, few hurricane evacuees are aware of the law.

Indeed, the general public remains uninformed about disaster victims' entitlements. Consequently, the federal government is not being held accountable for refusing to comply with federal law, nor is government being held responsible for damaging the people of New Orleans. Specifically, if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the New Orleans Levee Board, a subdivision of state government, had properly built and maintained New Orleans' levees, Katrina evacuees would not be homeless today.

Additionally, few evacuees have seen the majority of the benefits promised in the Stafford Act. Many who have received housing benefits, for example, have received the only the temporary housing assistance mandated by law. Direct assistance and grants for property repairs are also available.

According to the Stafford Act, "The president, in consultation with the governor of a state, may provide financial assistance under this section to an individual or household ... to address personal property, transportation, and other necessary expenses or serious needs resulting from the major disaster.

"One or more types of housing assistance may be made available… based on the suitability and availability of the types of assistance, to meet the needs of individuals and households in the particular disaster situation.

"The president may not provide direct assistance ... with respect to a major disaster after the end of the 18~month period beginning on the date of the declaration of the major disaster by the president, except that the president may extend that period if the president determines that due to extraordinary circumstances an extension would be in the public interest."

A review of the entire law reveals that it authorizes President George W. Bush to provide 18 months of housing assistance and to extend the assistance period if he determines the extension is in the public interest.

In addition to temporary housing, the feds are mandated by law to "provide financial assistance, and, if necessary, services, to individuals and households in the state who, as a direct result of a major disaster, have necessary expenses and serious needs in cases in which the individuals and households are unable to meet such expenses or needs through other means."

Thus the Stafford Act also allows for disbursements of financial aid. "The president may provide financial assistance to individuals or households to rent alternate housing accommodations, existing rental units, housing, recreational vehicles, or other readily fabricated dwellings. The amount of assistance .. , shall be based on the fair market rent for the accommodation provided, plus the cost of any transportation, utility hookups, or unit installation not provided directly by the president."

Funding for home repairs is also included: "The president may provide financial assistance for the repair of owner-occupied private residences, utilities, and residential infrastructure (such as a private access route) by a major disaster to a safe and sanitary living or functioning condition; and eligible hazard mitigation measures that reduce the likelihood of future damage to such residences, utilities, or infrastructure."

The law even has a section permitting the replacement of homes:

"The president may provide financial assistance for the replacement of private residences damaged by a major disaster.

"The president may provide financial assistance or direct assistance to individuals or households to construct permanent housing in insular areas outside the continental United States and in other remote locations in cases in which no alternative housing resources are available; and the types of temporary housing assistance described are unavailable, infeasible, or not cost-effective."

The Stafford Act also allows occupants to buy temporary housing units "purchased by the president for housing disaster victims, if the individual or household lacks permanent housing."

Disaster victims may also file for and receive unemployment benefits and disaster unemployment assistance through state unemployment offices.

Much has been reported and said about the possibility that evacuees are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Yet few know that under the Stafford Act, evacuees can receive "crisis counseling to help relieve any grieving, stress, or mental health problems caused or aggravated by the disaster or its aftermath."

If evacuees who, in a period of desperation or depression, committed suicide or other acts of violence, had known about these services, maybe they could have survived the worst catastrophe in American history.

"Crisis counseling services are also offered by the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, other voluntary agencies, as well as churches and synagogues. Additional mental health information may be found on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Mental Health Services' website, www.mentalhealth.org," according to a FEMA press release. But who knew that?

Evacuees may also request and receive free legal counseling. "The Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association, through an agreement with FEMA, provides free legal advice for low-income individuals regarding cases that will not produce a fee (Le., those cases where attorneys are paid part of the settlement which is awarded by the court). Cases that may generate a fee are turned over to the local lawyer referral service," according to FEMA's website.

Although much of this information has been kept on the downlow¬only the most ardent researchers have discovered it - there is growing evidence that the political pressure from evacuee organizations, attorneys and some elected officials is having an effect on the feds. A recent announcement from HUD underscores this fact.

"The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has used the $390 million supplemental appropriation President Bush signed recently to replace and expand its current rental assistance program that aided families who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina," announced HUD Assistant Secretary Orlando Cabrera, who heads HUD's Office of Public and Indian Housing.

"The Disaster Voucher Program extends eligibility for assistance to families who lost their homes to both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Katrina Disaster Housing Assistance Program only assisted Katrina evacuees."

"There are still families who desperately need housing," Cabrera said. "We are confident this funding and the changes to our original hurricane rental assistance program will help even more families find stable, more long-term housing solutions."

Families who were eligible for KDHAP (the Katrina Disaster Housing Assistance Program) - former public housing residents, Section 8 voucher holders and residents of subsidized multifamily projects - are eligible for DVP (the Disaster Voucher Program) through Sept. 30, 2007, to provide housing anywhere in the U.S.

Families who were homeless prior to Katrina or Rita are also eligible for this assistance. The more than 15,000 families who are registered under KDHAP have been transferred to DVP, without assistance interruption. Families who fall into any of the categories above are urged to call HUD's KDHAP Call Center toll-free at (866) 373-9509.

CC Campbell-Rock, a native New Orfeanian, veteran journalist and Katrina evacuee, is the new editor of the Bay View. Email her at campbellrock [at] sfbayview [dot] com.