House Panel Cites Failures on Gulf Housing

Members of Congress are accusing FEMA and HUD of trying to shirk responsibility for solving long-term housing needs in the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast states.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It's been nearly three years since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. And after the disastrous initial response, the government promised to help the most vulnerable storm victims. But testimony today at a congressional hearing, revealed that the agencies are fighting among themselves instead of getting the job done.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: More than 20,000 households along the Gulf Coast are still in temporary housing, most living in tiny travel trailers shown to have dangerous levels of formaldehyde. So, when officials with FEMA and HUD showed up on Capitol Hill today, the question was obvious.

Representative MARK SOUDER (Republican, Indiana): Why are these people still in emergency housing? This was supposed to be a short-term phenomenon, not a long-term phenomenon.

ELLIOTT: Republican Mark Souder of Indiana and other members of the House Homeland Security and Financial Services Committees were unsatisfied by the lack of a clear answer from the agency representatives who testified - Carlos Castillo, the assistant administrator of Disaster Assistance at FEMA, and Jeffrey Riddel, director of HUD's Office of Capital Improvements. According to Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, just getting the gentleman in the same hearing room was a feat.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): When we began to deal with this issue of trailers that were not fit for human habitation, of inadequate housing, FEMA and HUD tended, frankly, to blame each other. We had difficulty, I will say, and I was appalled at this, in getting FEMA and HUD to come to a hearing at the same time. Well, that's got to stop.

ELLIOTT: Thousands of public and subsidized housing units damaged by the storm are not back online, and neither agency is taking the lead to restore them. HUD says it doesn't have the capital funds to do so. FEMA says it can't spend disaster recovery funds on permanent housing. Castillo and Riddel testified the agencies have been working on a draft memorandum of understanding reflecting this standoff. Lawmakers were flabbergasted, given the history of the federal response to Katrina.

Again, Democrat Barney Frank.

Rep. FRANK: What we have is the government of the most powerful and wealthiest nation in the history of the world doing very little to alleviate their plight not only in the immediate aftermath, which was all documented, but today. There are people living today in an inadequate housing because of the failure of this government to respond.

ELLIOTT: Democrat Bob Etheridge of North Carolina had his coastal constituents in mind when he asked what the housing solution would be should a hurricane strike today. He grilled HUD's Jeffrey Riddel on why the two agencies haven't been able to work this out.

Mr. JEFFREY RIDDEL (HUD): We're trying to work with...

Representative BOB ETHERIDGE (Democrat, North Carolina): When will it be completed? Is there a date?

Mr. RIDDEL: No, sir. We may need to get congressional support to support the changes that we're proposing.

Rep. ETHERIDGE: Do you reckon we can dial the hurricane center and ask them to hold them until we get this done? I mean, this is serious business. This is life and death.

Mr. RIDDEL: Absolutely.

Rep. FRANK: How soon...

ELLIOTT: Riddel couldn't provide a date, but promised HUD's immediate attention. Etheridge replied: This is embarrassing.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.

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