FEMA: Reprise

Sep 1, 2007 by

Dear New Orleanians:

This past Monday, FEMA announced a new program for those displaced by hurricanes Katrina & Rita. It is meant to provide reimbursement for relocation expenses incurred by any disaster victims. But there is a serious problem.

First, here’s the press release on the program.

and here’s the Times-Picayune’s article about it.

What the new program does is provide up to $4000 for expenses incurred in moving back to your home or somewhere else after the storms. According to the press release, here’s what’s covered:

“Relocation Assistance will be limited to travel costs including airfare, train, bus and/or a rental vehicle. Furniture transportation expenses also are eligible, including commercially rented equipment for hauling and commercially purchased moving materials or moving services. Mileage, gas and other travel-related expenses such as food, incurred while using a privately owned vehicle are not eligible costs. Moving costs for recreational or large luxury items such as boats or recreational vehicles are not eligible expenses under this program either.”

But here’s the rub: you must have incurred the costs after February 1, 2006. So if you moved back to the city before then (like I did, on January 27, 2006), or perhaps you settled somewhere else before then, you are out of luck.

This ignores the reality of what was going on then. We were being strongly encouraged to come back as soon as possible and help rebuild. Others had already made the decision to stay somewhere, and incurred expenses doing so. The folks that came back (or permanently settled elsewhere) before February 1st are being unfairly penalized for making a decision that is not in line with FEMA’s arbitrary timing.

So, you may ask, why was the arbitrary date of February 1, 2006 chosen? For purely bureacratic reasons.

Right after Katrina, FEMA had a program called the Facilitated Relocation Program. From what little I can find about it now, it’s the program that paid for one-way airplane, bus, and train tickets for evacuees to come back to the disaster zone. It didn’t pay for moving expenses or rental cars, so it’s not an exact analogue. In fact, it’s very different. But (and this is the important part) it apparently officially ended on January 31, 2006. Here’s a FEMA press release on it.

Yes the press release says it was to end December 31st, but I’ve confirmed with FEMA that it actually ended a month later.)

Despite the significant differences in the two programs, FEMA views the new one as simply a continuation of the old one. It is NOT.

You cannot compare paying for a one way bus ticket to the costs incurred in renting a moving van in Houston or Atlanta (where U-Haul and Penske were charging triple and quadruple their normal rates after the storm) and hiring movers to bring back what you salvaged from your flooded home, along with what you had acquired in the first few months after the storm (some of which, such as furniture, was funded by FEMA!).

While this January 7, 2007 article in the Times-Picayune says that even 16 months after the storm, truck rental companies were charging through the nose, I can tell you that from personal experience, it was already expensive just five months after the storm. That article also talks about what finally led to the new policy. There is no discussion of the earlier bus-ticket program, because that program had nothing to do with people renting a moving truck. How FEMA can conflate the two is beyond me.

So this policy has to be changed to move the start date back to something more common sense.

I’ve already alerted the Times-Picayune to this, and they will probably be writing something about it next week. I’ve also spoken to the bureaucrats at FEMA in Washington. At first, they claimed they couldn’t tell me why February 1, 2006 had been chosen (in fact, I had to pry even to get the name of the person to whom I was talking). They claimed it was a matter of internal policy deliberation, and that I had to submit any questions in writing to a generic email box ([email protected]).

When I asked if it was because the Facilitated Relocation Program had ended on January 31, 2006, they said that was indeed the reason. I’m pretty sure I was speaking with – if not the person who crafted the policy – at least someone who knows its history.

So please let anyone you know about this, and how ridiculously unfair it is. Every individual is entitled by law to $26,200 in individual disaster assistance from FEMA. If this latest allowed allotment does not cause you to exceed that amount, I don’t see why FEMA should arbitrarily limit it with a silly date on a calendar. Hopefully we can get this policy changed to something that recognizes the enormous struggles Katrina and Rita victims went through in the immediate aftermath of the storms.

Matt Mc Bride (via email)

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