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FEMA Sued Over Termination of Housing Assistance Benefits for Katrina and Rita Survivors

Aug. 29, 2006  

FEMA Sued Over Termination of Housing Assistance Benefits for Katrina and Rita Survivors

Public Citizen Represents Evacuees and Community Group; Calls on Agency to Provide Constitutionally Mandated Explanation of Its Decisions

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorneys for Public Citizen today filed suit on behalf of four Katrina and Rita survivors and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to prevent FEMA from terminating evacuees’ housing assistance benefits on August 31 without providing an explanation of its decision.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and assigned to Judge Richard J. Leon, seeks to order FEMA to continue benefits for thousands of hurricane evacuees until it provides constitutionally sufficient notice of why their benefits are being denied, what steps, if any, they can take to fix the situation, and how they can appeal the decisions. 

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (www.trla.org) in Austin serves as co-counsel with Public Citizen for ACORN and for the four individual plaintiffs, all of whom now reside in Texas.

The termination letters sent by FEMA after March 2006 only inform evacuees of their ineligibility for benefits, followed by an obscure computer code or phrase representing the reason for that status. FEMA claims that recipients can use an agency manual to make sense of the code, but the lawsuit asserts that these sources and even the agency’s own employees cannot provide comprehensible or adequate explanations. Although FEMA says it distributed the manual to evacuees shortly after the hurricanes and that the code book is available online, this bureaucratic rigmarole is clearly inadequate to address the needs of families displaced by such a severe natural disaster.

“One year after Katrina wrought its devastation on the Gulf Coast, the plight of its victims is being compounded by the federal government’s neglect or inadvertence. The Bush administration is systematically undermining those victims’ entitlement to critical housing benefits that Congress guaranteed them in the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act,” said Michael Kirkpatrick, an attorney for Public Citizen.

Because of the threat of mass evictions after August 31, the date FEMA plans to terminate benefits, Public Citizen will seek a preliminary injunction on an emergency basis to order FEMA to continue assistance until evacuee families can adequately address and appeal the decision.  

“FEMA’s refusal to provide an intelligible explanation of its decision and the available means of challenging it will result in the termination of assistance for many evacuees – not because they are ineligible, but because they are uncertain of what the problem is and how to correct it,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen.

To view the lawsuit, click here.

To view a copy of FEMA’s termination letter, click here.

To view other related documents, click here, here and here.