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Despite Partial Stay of Court Order, FEMA Should Help Hurricane Evacuees

Dec. 22, 2006

Despite Partial Stay of Court Order, FEMA Should Help Hurricane Evacuees

Statement of Michael Kirkpatrick, Attorney, Public Citizen

 Today’s decision granting in part and denying in part the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) motion to stay the district court’s order pending appeal is a partial victory for evacuees trying to restore their housing benefits and get back on their feet. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied FEMA’s request to stay the part of a federal district court’s order requiring the agency to provide clearer notices of the reasons for, and an opportunity to appeal, denials of eligibility for further housing assistance. Therefore, under the Court of Appeals’ ruling, if the notified evacuees can show that they have been wrongfully denied housing assistance, FEMA will be obligated to immediately provide them with assistance.

 And, although FEMA now has no legal obligation to provide immediate housing assistance to the hurricane evacuees who were covered by the district court’s order, the agency has a moral obligation to help these people, who have already lost so much and are still being victimized by the government’s Kafkaesque benefits process. The stay entered today is not a decision on the merits of the case, and we remain confident that we will prevail on appeal.

 Months ago, FEMA cut off thousands of evacuees from housing benefits without adequate explanation, providing only a letter with an obscure computer code or phrase representing the reason for that status but with no explanation of the code or the basis for the decision. On Nov. 29, Judge Richard J. Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the agency to “immediately” restore short-term housing assistance to all evacuees whom FEMA had found ineligible for continued assistance until they receive adequate explanation for the decision and time to appeal. He also required the agency to pay the benefits that evacuees would have received between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30.

 Although the Court of Appeals has issued a stay with regard to restoration of short-term housing assistance and the payment of retroactive benefits, FEMA remains under an obligation to comply with part of the district court’s order. FEMA must locate the 4,200 families affected, tell them the reasons for its ineligibility decisions and allow the evacuees to cure any deficiencies in their applications or appeal if any mistakes have been made. We expect that the better notices and appeal process will allow many of these families to qualify for housing assistance.

 To read today’s decision, click here

*Note: Public Citizen is representing the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and hurricane evacuees. For more information about the FEMA case, click here.