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Houston Struggles with FEMA to Provide Shelter for Katrina Evacuees

February 17, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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LEE HOCHBERG: Six months into a horrible odyssey that’s chased them from decimated homes in New Orleans to temporary shelter around the country, these Katrina survivors marched angrily on the nation’s capitol last week.

MAN: There’s no place like home. No place like home.

DEMONSTRATORS: What do we want?

DEMONSTRATORS: Justice!

LEE HOCHBERG: Schoolteachers Charles and Wanda Ross are frustrated by what they say they have not gotten from FEMA, and grateful to the place they now are living: Houston.

CHARLES ROSS, Evacuee: The city of Houston helped us. FEMA did nothing. If it wasn’t for the city of Houston, I don’t know where we’d be right now, if you want to know honestly the truth — we’d be really in — in a fix.

LEE HOCHBERG: After Katrina, Houston was an instant refuge for more than 300,000 evacuees. But life there has reached a new and difficult phase for the 150,000 who remain.

Where sports arenas were once jammed with cots, massive new buildings now serve as disaster relief agencies where people like Eric wander to find help. They’ve given up on going home.

ERIC: I’ve given up on New Orleans. That’s it. New Orleans is gone. Don’t go back, whatever. Don’t go back. It makes no sense.

LEE HOCHBERG: More people from New Orleans live in Houston than in New Orleans Parish. Unlike other cities, Houston came up with its own plan to move the majority of those people out of shelters and hotels into apartments. The plan was spearheaded by Mayor Bill White.

MAYOR BILL WHITE: To me, the longer that our nation postponed the decision — getting them into apartments, getting them back into the mainstream — then the more that the agony of this terrible devastation would continue. So, to me, it seemed like just the right thing to do.

LEE HOCHBERG: Under the program Houston designed, the city signed and paid for leases for apartments and issued vouchers to evacuees. Those evacuees got to move in without putting down a deposit or undergoing a credit check. But getting FEMA to agree on the plan and to reimburse the city has been an ongoing headache.

MAYOR BILL WHITE: First, they said 12 months – actually we started with six months and they told us to go to 12 months to open up more apartments that were available. We told them — they encouraged us to do it. They put it in writing. And then, a couple of months later, they said, “well, maybe it should be six months,” but we had signed the leases already. And at the last possible day before we had to give them notice that 34,000 units would have to be vacated, they agreed with the 12-month program. But in the meantime, it caused all this turmoil.

LEE HOCHBERG: But the turmoil didn’t end. FEMA changed its mind and said it wanted to change the way the program worked starting March 1. It said it wanted to start giving aid directly to the 80,000 evacuees and let them pay their own housing costs.

Under that plan, struggling evacuees, some of them still unemployed, might have had to start paying their own security deposits and first and last month’s rent.

That upset property manager Tammy Rodriguez, who feared tenants would not deliver rent for a full year as originally promised by the city. She worried that she could not recoup expenses her management company incurred when it hired contractors to renovate apartments for 1,500 evacuees. It paid $5,000 per unit, four times the usual amount, because of pressing deadlines.

TAMMY RODRIGUEZ: So we’re like, okay, what happened to the year that we started with? You know, stop changing the deadline, stop changing when the funding going to stop. Stop changing your mind, period. You know, if you’re going to fund for a year, fund for a year, and just leave it at that.

LEE HOCHBERG: This week, FEMA changed its mind again and said apartment owners, not evacuees, would get the rent reimbursement checks.

FEMA Director David Paulison told the NewsHour yesterday the money would come from a separate pot because the aftermath of Katrina was no longer an emergency.

DAVID PAULISON: We usually don’t even pay for things this far into the disaster. It’s for immediate lifesaving and health issues, is what it’s supposed to be. So normally it’s used for congregate sheltering when they move out of their homes, they evacuate out of the homes into a congregate shelter or even some very immediate step into a hotel or motel. Here we’re almost six months now, so the emergency is over.

LEE HOCHBERG: But Houston’s mayor says that’s absurd.

MAYOR BILL WHITE: Not for these families that don’t have a house, the emergency hasn’t ended.

LEE HOCHBERG: Paulison said the administrative changes would have little effect on evacuees or apartment owners.

DAVID PAULISON: Nothing should change. The tenant, it should be seamless for the tenant and seamless for the apartment owners themselves. They’ll continue getting payments just like they have in the past.

The individuals will not see much difference at all. We’re just going to simply move them from one pot of money to the other. So the dollars will continue to go directly to the apartment owners, and so that will keep those leases intact.

LEE HOCHBERG: The mayor’s office said the two sides are inching closer. But in the past announcements from FEMA’s national level haven’t always translated on the ground.

MAYOR BILL WHITE: Usually, the situation has been that every day, every week, I’ll have to call somebody locally, call state, call nationally. The national person will agree to something. They’ll send a national team down here that will include some of the most senior people– the administrator of FEMA, the COO of FEMA. We’ll reach certain agreements in principle and then we’ll have to call and call and call and bug them and have members of Congress call and have senators call before they’re implemented.

LEE HOCHBERG: FEMA, for its part, says it is trying to minimize confusion. It has dispatched two-person outreach teams to some 39,000 Houston-area apartments, with the latest information about the housing programs.

SPOKESMAN: That probably will be able answer a lot of your questions.

LEE HOCHBERG: But even if FEMA and Houston do come to an agreement, problems remain for the Rosses after their traumatic evacuation to Houston.

WANDA ROSS: Since then, I lost my mother; I lost my father. I was robbed at gunpoint. It just has been a bad experience for me here. I’m really spooked and I’m just tired and I’m just ready to go home.

LEE HOCHBERG: But their three-bedroom home of 22 years now is destroyed. They cannot get enough money to either move back to New Orleans or pay to fix up the house.

On their 25th wedding anniversary, they sat with us in their near empty Houston apartment, cradling the bowling ball they say was the only salvageable item they rescued. Charles Ross said he appreciated Houston’s help but thinks what’s happening there just isn’t enough.

CHARLES ROSS: My house is in New Orleans, and you have done nothing to help me get back. Giving Houston enough money to pay for the vouchers — that’s only — that’s only a short-term fix — you’re not fixing the housing if you’re just giving money for a year and a half or a year. That’s not fixing the problem. That’s just band-aiding the problem.

LEE HOCHBERG: As they find joy in inexpensive pleasures, they say they wonder what FEMA is doing with the $60 billion Congress authorized for Katrina relief. Stuck here for now, they say they’ll seek something familiar in what still seems a very foreign place.