FEMA Extends Housing Subsidies for Katrina Victims

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Thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in government-subsidized hotel and motel rooms now have additional time to find a place to live. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will now end the housing payments after the holiday season, on Jan. 7, 2006 — and the cutoff will not affect Louisiana and Mississippi, where the housing shortage is still acute. Ed Gordon discusses the issue with Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) and Bennie Thompson (D-MS).

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

More than 46,000 displaced Katrina victims, many staying in government subsidized hotels and motels, now have additional time to find new homes. FEMA extended the time line to January 7th to pay rent for those displaced families. The agency's new plan applies to 10 states where most of the homeless evacuees sought shelter. It does not affect Louisiana and Mississippi where there is a housing shortage. Joining us to discuss the continuing struggles of the region are Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana, and Congressman Benny Thompson of Mississippi. Gentlemen, thanks for joining us. Appreciate it.

Congressman WILLIAM JEFFERSON (Louisiana): Hello. How you doing?

Congressman BENNY THOMPSON (Mississippi): My pleasure.

GORDON: Good, thank you. Congressman Jefferson, let me start with you. We've been hearing so much about trying to get these evacuees back to a, quote, semblance of normalcy. How realistic is it to believe that we're going to see anything that even closely associates itself with normalcy for these people?

Cong. JEFFERSON: Well, we're nowhere near that and the way we're going, we aren't even taking the strides we need to take to approach that. Normalcy means getting folks in housing they can depend on for the long term, at least for the next 12 to 18 months while they figure out their permanent residency issues. Getting them in proximity to take on jobs in the area that they're from, and having a local government that can function for them, provide the services they need and school that'll work for them back home. This is a long way from--we're a long way from this.

GORDON: Congressman Thompson, so many people taking a real close look at FEMA and whether or not they have been fulfilling their duty. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana suggests that FEMA has been sitting on monies. What of your state of Mississippi? Have you been satisfied with the response from the agency. And if not, what would you like to see more of?

Cong. THOMPSON: Well, I think first of all I think, like most people, we're dissatisfied with FEMA's response. But even more dissatisfaction comes because of the helter-skelter approach to recovery. The helter-skelter, as you talked about, the eviction notices, the pullback, and the no real semblance of a plan for the orderly return of citizens back to the impacted area. We're still having difficulties as members of Congress getting timely communication. You can imagine what the evacuees are running into. And what we now face with--is those agencies who are tasked with recovery, are not communicating with each other. The best example I can give you is for two months Fannie Mae, which is, as you know, a mortgage guarantor agency, tried to get FEMA to accept 1,500 homes that they have in their inventory as part of the transitional housing for people in--that have been evacuated. And they could not get a response back from FEMA. And so, what we had to do was go public with this. And so--but this is not the way that you plan recovery. Recovery should be orderly. Congressman Jefferson and others should not have to shame FEMA into doing what its mission requires it to do.

GORDON: Congressman Jefferson, what are you telling your constituents who clearly many of them facing dire straits who are frightened, quite frankly--I know that you have talked with many of them. We all have. What are you telling them to give them some sense of--a reason to hang on?

Cong. JEFFERSON: I was just in Texas over the weekend, where the Byron Classic was held, and we had occasion to go to a church and--full of evacuees from our area. And the fact of it is, Ed, our folks are pretty resilient. They want to come back home. They want us to help them with a road map to get back here. They're frustrated, as Representative Thompson has said, because they don't know what's coming next and they aren't getting notices that are timely about what's going to happen to them. They aren't looking to be taken care of by the government, but they do think they deserve to have a fair notice of what their options are. And we are just doing our best to--letting them know we're doing our best to get information to them that's timely that helps--that's useable by them, that helps them with their families. And we're also telling them that we're doing--we're making sure that our local government does its part to turn on the lights and the gas back here, to beat up on FEMA to make sure that trailers are available in folks' yards and lots and in the proximity here. And that their jobs back here--that we're trying to open up for them so they'll have a chance to come back. And that the schools are going to open in this--in January so they can bring their children back home.

GORDON: Congressman Thompson, we heard from President Bush who suggested that he was going to stay on top of things. What of your communication, perhaps not from your own office specifically, but perhaps as a body--the Congressional Black Caucus, etc.--to the White House directly? Have you been satisfied with what you're hearing back from them?

Cong. THOMPSON: Well, I think the information we get back from the White House is no different than any of the other agencies. We get a lot of lip service. We saw the president speak in Jackson Square in New Orleans and talk about all these grand things that were going to happen in response to Katrina. Unfortunately, none of them have materialized. So we constantly press this administration for...(technical difficulties) to trying to make things work. And unfortunately, we still don't have this road map. We just found out over the weekend that the FEMA director and the czar that the president has put over the complete process, they're not even talking to each other. And so, consequently, it's impossible for those people who are impacted to really have any clarity when the people in charge are not even communicating. The Congressional Black Caucus, it had to move forward and introduce its own legislation to try to talk about what a real Katrina relief packet should include. And so, what we've tried to do is to say, `Look, if you all, as the White House and the principle leaders of this effort, can't get a plan together, we'll do it for you.' At this point, though, just like a lot of other legislation we introduced, it's not going anywhere with this administration.

GORDON: Congressman Jefferson, what do you tell your colleagues on the Hill who suggest that they have to strike a balance for showing compassion and not breaking the bank? Because whether or not we want to say it out loud, there's going to be more and more and more money needed in spite of the money that's already been poured in.

Cong. JEFFERSON: Well, I say to them that we have done a pretty good job in the past of taking care of our other parts of our country or--that have been hit by disasters, whether it's California with the earthquakes or mudslides in the central part of the country or tornadoes or the disaster we've had in Alaska with glaciers and ice breaks and everything else. And across the world we're putting out money to help people everywhere. And we are not even, as you'll see in a few weeks, demanding that there be any way that we pay for the money we spend in Iraq to--if we don't come back and make cuts in our budget to the most vulnerable folks in our society to pay for the war effort or any other effort. So I don't know why we're at the point now where the deficits, which are huge and are real, ought to be an impediment to dealing with the real-life issues of our own citizens who, through no fault of their own, have been hit by an act of God. We need our levee systems up down here that work for our people. We need our housing done, our jobs back together and our communities in places where they can just report to our citizens. And if we can do that, then I think our folks can take it from there.

GORDON: Congressman Thompson, still concern on your part in--with the colleagues that you've talked to, that because the face of Katrina is still black, brown, that we may see less compassion than we would if that face were a little lighter?

Cong. THOMPSON: Well, I think right now we are dealing with this notion of pay as you go. Well, we've never as a Congress paid as we've gone in response to earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes. And all of a sudden, with Katrina, and then subsequently to Rita, we're now having to decide, well, where are we going to find the money to pay for it? And the notion is that because many of the people who are impacted don't look like the "majority", quote, of America because they're black and brown, we now have to decide a new policy. And this is not the time for America to decide how we're going to finance disaster recovery for the Gulf Coast region. We need to fully fund it, as Congressman Jefferson talked about, the levee system. We need to get the families back to the impacted areas so that they can get their lives back together. And not be fooled to talk about a new policy of pay as you go. This is absolutely unrealistic. We're not following that policy in Iraq. We're not following that policy anywhere in the country except this debate in Washington.

GORDON: Congressman Jefferson, with about a minute to go, FEMA suggests that they are not throwing people out on the street, that they're just going to try to get them out of hotels and place them in perhaps cheaper modes of housing. Do you buy that? And if not, what's your concern that some of these people will, indeed, be thrown out and find their way on the streets?

Cong. JEFFERSON: Well, I invited FEMA--could show me where each of these people or families will end up and put their finger on an apartment or a house somewhere. I'd buy that in a minute. I think most of the people would. The trouble is that FEMA isn't saying that to them. They're saying you have to get out of the hotels and make your own way. All of the rental associations from all of the areas I'm talking to are saying they don't have enough apartments. And no one is leasing apartments for three months at a time, which is what FEMA's going to pay for: a three-month voucher. There has to be a better way to do this than to shock people into finding a way to help themselves, as FEMA is saying they want people to do. This isn't some sort of a time-share arrangement where people can go out and swap off on housing. The real world there's--these units aren't available, and unless FEMA identifies them specifically, it's a pretty cruel way to handle the families...

GORDON: All right. Well, Congressman Jefferson and Congressman Thompson, thank you so much for being with us. We'll stick with you and keep people updated on the continuing struggle and, hopefully, we'll get everybody back on their feet sooner than later. We thank you both for joining us.

Cong. JEFFERSON: Thank you.

Cong. THOMPSON: Thank you.

GORDON: Up next, the president makes a run for the border and time is running out on "Tookie" Williams. All that on our Roundtable.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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