In its first major test in three years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has come under scrutiny for failing to develop a long-term housing plan for the more than 1 million evacuees from the Texas Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Ike, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.
Faced with criticism, FEMA this week agreed to pay a month of hotel expenses for some evacuees from the hardest-hit areas – a reflection of a recent policy change by the agency that it would only use travel trailers as “a last resort.”
But in a meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Thursday, local officials expressed concern that there was no longer-range plan for residents whose homes in devastated areas such as Galveston, Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange will be uninhabitable indefinitely.
“Housing is a big concern, and our county judges and elected officials brought it up with Secretary Chertoff,” said Officer Crystal Holmes, spokeswoman for Beaumont Emergency Operations. “We just don’t have apartments here, and when you think of the thousands of homes actually obliterated, where are all those people going to live?”
The Tribune reported that FEMA spokesman Marty Bahamonde said the agency is working with real estate agents in Houston and other parts of Texas and Louisiana to identify vacancies. He said the agency would pay rentals for up to 18 month.”
We try to find temporary housing and hope things will change down there so they can go back in 30 days,” said Bahamonde.
He said FEMA also is looking for mobile homes in the area that can be rented, but the agency has abandoned the controversial travel trailer program, which provided housing for Katrina and Rita evacuees for years after the storms. FEMA was criticized for taking too long to get people into the trailers initially and for allowing people to stay in them after learning the units were a potential health risk when used long-term.
Local officials have urged residents not to return to the flood-ravaged areas until basic services such as electricity, sewer and water are restored. Still, thousands of people have tried to return to Galveston and other areas, despite a shortage of food, water and ice.
With 32,000 people in shelters across the state and thousands more living in hotels and with relatives or friends, Texas officials said they are anticipating a housing strain on the area, which already has a shortage of apartments and other rental units. Meanwhile, the housing burden has fallen on state shelters, which were set up as an emergency resource and now could be forced to remain open longer.
According to Zachary Thompson, director of the Dallas County Department of Health and Human Resources, FEMA should have established programs with housing agencies across the state before the storm hit or immediately afterward so that apartments and government-subsidized housing could be readily identified. Those are lessons that should have been learned from Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005, he said.
“We have seen this movie before. It happened with Katrina,” Thompson said. “When you evacuate the majority of residents from an impacted city, the game plan for the federal government should be to look at housing needs. People clearly can’t go back to Galveston.”
The shelters were put in place to get people out of harm’s way. The next step is up to FEMA. No city in America is set up to handle long-term shelters,” he said.