FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
To help understand the challenges that Katrina evacuees like Ms. Marguerite face, we turn to Shaila Dewan, a national correspondent for The New York Times. She's been covering events on the Gulf Coast, and we began by talking about Baton Rouge, where FEMA plans to close five trailer parks and displace more than 600 families.
Ms. SHAILA DEWAN (New York Times): When FEMA notified them of this they said, you know, which of you can move in 14 days? Well, people have their kids in school. Some of them have found jobs - FEMA lost its lease for that land. And until these people have a permanent solution, this is going to continue to happen.
CHIDEYA: So you've been on the ground in Louisiana looking at the confusion over FEMA housing assistance for Katrina evacuees, and one example is a woman you interviewed in the Baton Rouge area, Ms. Nina Walker(ph). So tell us about her situation.
Ms. DEWAN: Well, Ms. Walker has been living in a trailer park for several months. It's a trailer park operated by FEMA, and she, like many of the evacuees that are still living in trailer homes have a lot of health problems - diabetic. And she was issued a trailer of her own, but came home one day to find the lock had been changed, her things had been removed, and someone else was living in the trailer.
CHIDEYA: So is this a common error?
Ms. DEWAN: I don't think it's a terribly common error but it has happened more than once. The caseworkers I talk to knew of five cases and they said that, you know, many times the people living in these parks are so uncertain about what's going to happen to them, that they're afraid that FEMA is going to come and take their trailer any minute anyway. So they could see a case where someone would just not even report such a thing.
CHIDEYA: We spoke to Ms. Marguerite Doyle Johnston from the Ninth Ward, and she said that she's got only a few months left in her FEMA trailer because she was told she could only have it for 18 months. Is that what you understand what a contract is with residents, that they get 18 months? Or are there different types of agreements.
Ms. DEWAN: Well, I think FEMA had the idea that they would provide housing for 18 months. On the other hand, there have been previous disasters where they have provided housing for much, much longer than that. And FEMA officials themselves say that the task of finding permanent housing solutions has been far more difficult than anyone anticipated.
So what you have is FEMA setting a deadline and then often agreeing to extend that deadline and then agreeing to extend it again. And this just puts the evacuees in a constant state of uncertainty.
CHIDEYA: What exactly is the situation now. FEMA is challenging orders to basically continue assistance to Katrina evacuees. Can you explain exactly what's going on here? Because FEMA would not speak to us on the record about this because of the pending appeal.
Ms. DEWAN: Right. Well, basically FEMA initially agreed to pay people's rent. And the bulk of those people who are having their rent paid by FEMA were in Houston. So Houston officials have been very involved in FEMA's policies and implementation of their policies on this. So a lot of it is centered there.
But there's been mass confusion over who qualifies for this assistance. If they don't qualify, why they don't qualify. I've seen people show me two different letters from FEMA with two different reasons on it why they don't qualify. I've seen people who have shown me letters that have a reason code on it. It's just a number. It doesn't tell you exactly what the reason is.
So there's been mass confusion. A judge ruled that the process had not been straightforward enough and that FEMA needed to clarify the process and in the meantime restore families that had been ruled ineligible.
CHIDEYA: So if there's been this decision to restore benefits and then there's an appeal, what happens in the meantime?
Ms. DEWAN: Well, nothing is happening. And the lawyers for the evacuees are very, very frustrated about this. That the ruling said immediately restore benefits to these families. Many of these families, I mean the officials don't even know where they are. Because they were forced to move out of their apartments and they don't necessarily leave a forwarding address.
Secondly, FEMA has not indicated how it intends to comply. They have indicated that they plan to appeal it. However, as I understand it, they should still be following it even while they're appealing it.
CHIDEYA: There's been another set of reports on FEMA, which talks about fraudulent and invalid payments estimated at a billion dollars. How will that information affect FEMA's willingness to deal with this issue of people who, according to the courts, should still be getting payments?
Ms. DEWAN: Well, see this is where you really get into a tangle. Because FEMA is trying to ascertain whether these families are legitimately eligible for help. But at the same time they're kind of caught in their own bureaucratic morass.
CHIDEYA: Shaila, thank you so much for talking to us.
Ms. DEWAN: Thanks for having me.
CHIDEYA: Shaila Dewan is a national correspondent for the New York Times.
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CHIDEYA: Just ahead, William Jefferson will be back in New Orleans, and affordable housing is tight everywhere. These topics and more on our Roundtable next.
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