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

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

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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 presid