FEMA Learns from Katrina Disaster

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency is revising its disaster-relief programs. The agency is responding to government audits and investigations of its efforts to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

FEMA is changing the way it will provide emergency aid and shelter in cases of mass disasters, like Hurricane Katrina. The agency is responding to government audits and investigations that found tremendous abuse and fraud in Katrina disaster relief.

NPR's Libby Lewis reports.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

FEMA's director David Paulison stressed this point during an hour-long briefing with reporters.

Mr. DAVID PAULISON (Director, FEMA): This is still going to be a compassion organization. We simply have to do a better job of protecting the tax dollars out there. You know, we are going to lean heavily towards - on the side of the victim. I mean, it's obviously - people have lost everything.

LEWIS: FEMA will scale back the amount of cash emergency aid it gives out to families uprooted by disaster to $500. That's compared with the $2,000 it gave to Katrina survivors. The $500 is what FEMA had given in recent disasters before Katrina.

Mr. PAULISON: We can add more to that if we have to, but we think the first $500 - particularly with the system we have in place we'll be able to put people in hotels and into apartment buildings much more quickly - is going to cut that need down for the amount of dollars.

LEWIS: Paulison said FEMA is also clamping down on what auditors found was a major source of fraud.

Mr. PAULISON: FEMA did not have a system in place to verify that those who said they were from the area - from the effected area - really lived there. We didn't have a system in place to identify, are they who they say they are. That is in place now.

LEWIS: In other changes, Paulison said FEMA will make it easier and faster to register evacuees who need help. It will register people before storms hit. And it will use thousands of internal revenue service employees to help field calls by victims who want to register for help.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff outlined the changes in a letter to governors and state emergency managers. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. She said she's glad to see FEMA take positive steps to curb abuse. But she said she's cautious.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): FEMA is now led by true professionals with a great deal of experience in emergency management. But they still have a lot of vacancies. I don't know that they have the computer systems in place, the logistics understanding, and the trained personnel that's necessary to take concepts on paper and make them a reality.

LEWIS: For example, Collins said:

Sen. COLLINS: I think it makes sense to place victims in apartments as much as possible. But I'm not sure that FEMA really has a plan to identify vacant apartments and move families into them.

LEWIS: Shana Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, agreed.

Ms. SHANA SMITH (President and CEO, National Fair Housing Alliance): Skip the hotels. Skip the shelters. Let's get people into stable housing immediately.

LEWIS: Smith said she would like to see FEMA identify housing now, rather than wait for disaster to strike.

Ms. SMITH: It just sounds logical to me that you would move people into permanent housing rather than, you know, to a shelter, and then to a hotel, and then to an apartment.

LEWIS: What no one talked about Monday was what to do about the tens of thousands of Katrina and Rita survivors, who are still relying on FEMA's housing assistance to stay on their feet.

Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington.

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