Complaints Dog FEMA in Gulf Region The Federal Emergency Management Agency cites progress in providing housing and aid to hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana and Mississippi. But complaints persist about red tape and confusion.
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Complaints Dog FEMA in Gulf Region

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Complaints Dog FEMA in Gulf Region

Complaints Dog FEMA in Gulf Region

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Coming up, cleaning a sewage tsunami off the California coast.

But first, nearly five weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast, victims are still struggling to get help. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is making some progress providing housing and other assistance to hundreds of thousands of people, but complaints continue about red tape and confusion. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Atlas Brown(ph), also known as Big Al, sits in front of a friend's flood-damaged home in Biloxi, Mississippi. He has one question for an approaching journalist: Are you from FEMA? He's been waiting 10 days to hear someone say yes.

Mr. ATLAS BROWN (Hurricane Survivor): Here's to the health of the hurricane waiting on people to come by. I know somebody got to be home when they come. And nobody going to be here, they're not going to go in and check it.

FESSLER: And until the house is checked, Brown's friend, who's in Tennessee, can't get money to clean or rebuild. One person did come by but was little help.

Mr. BROWN: That man told me that this address wasn't on the paperwork, so I don't know what to say.

FESSLER: Five miles up the road, in D'Iberville, things aren't much different. Retiree Jerry Grimes(ph) pulls a piece of paper from his car, where he now keeps all his personal belongings.

Mr. JERRY GRIMES (Hurricane Survivor): I got the application that I filed for FEMA. I was looking for the date on here. The gentleman--yes, here it is. He was here September 1st.

FESSLER: That made Grimes optimistic he'd get quick relief after Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of his home. He was supposed to get an answer in 10 days, but now a month later...

Mr. GRIMES: No reply from them whatsoever.

FESSLER: Throughout the Gulf region, tens of thousands of hurricane victims are in a similar state. Many say they understand that this disaster is unprecedented, that they might have to be patient. But they're also confused about what they're supposed to do and when help will arrive.

(Soundbite of demonstrators chanting)

Group: (In unison) We need help! We need help! We need help!

FESSLER: In Homer, Louisiana, Thursday night, several hundred people attended a rally outside the civic center. More than 600 Katrina evacuees are still being sheltered inside. Many are frustrated, but local officials say things have improved in the past week. A FEMA disaster recovery center is scheduled to open on Monday, and efforts are being made to find more permanent housing here and elsewhere, in trailers and mobile homes. James Smith is emergency management director for Lamar County, Mississippi. He says things there are going pretty smoothly.

Mr. JAMES SMITH (Emergency Management Director, Lamar County, Mississippi): We have a FEMA liaison that comes in every day and--just to assess our needs of the county, and we're pretty much relaying to them what the people are relaying to us. So it seems to be going well, and we're definitely on the right track.

FESSLER: He says FEMA has placed 65 families so far in mobile homes at a local campsite. But as of Friday, only about 3,500 families had been placed in trailers or mobile homes throughout the Gulf region. A FEMA spokeswoman says things are going more slowly than the agency would like, but that it's complicated working with local and state officials to find suitable sites. She says that's one reason FEMA this week approved cash rental assistance for some 334,000 households. But Reinhard Dearing, chief administrative officer for Slidell, Louisiana, says excessive red tape has also slowed things town.

Mr. REINHARD DEARING (Chief Administrative Officer, Slidell, Louisiana): The constant inspection of sites, reinspection of sites, drafting up leases, and then another inspection from a CORPS guy, then another inspection from a FEMA person.

FESSLER: He says the city wants temporary housing for about 25,000 people, but only a hundred trailers have arrived so far. Baton Rouge Mayor Melvin Holden complained to Congress this week that he too was encountering problems even though his city has some 220,000 evacuees. He told Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins there was still no single FEMA point person for his city more than four weeks after the storm.

(Soundbite of Senate hearing)

Mayor MELVIN HOLDEN (Baton Rouge): Let me tell you, for the first time last night I got a call. I don't know whether they knew I was testifying before the Senate.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): I suspect that might have something to do with it.

FESSLER: But at that same hearing, Robert Eckels, the judge for Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, said he's had great help from FEMA, that the agency is responsive and flexible. He said some people have unrealistic expectations.

(Soundbite of Senate hearing)

Judge ROBERT ECKELS (Harris County, Texas): I had lady on the radio yesterday calling in that had a tree on her house, and she was upset. `Where's FEMA? They're not taking care of me,' you know. Well, first, where's your insurance company? FEMA--you know, it's a disaster to her, but it's not really where you need those FEMA assets, and people don't really understand FEMA.

FESSLER: Aileen Jones(ph) of Biloxi admits she doesn't understand everything, but just wants information. She knows that many are worse off than she and her husband.

Ms. AILEEN JONES (Hurricane Survivor): I would be happy if I could just get a straight answer, you know? Say, `OK, it's going to be--you're on the list. It's going to be about three months. It's going to be six months.'

FESSLER: Just so she can know when they might be moving from the tent on the front yard into a trailer. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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