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Legal Victory for Survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

Nov. 29, 2006

Legal Victory for Survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita

Public Citizen Lawsuit Forces FEMA to Restore Housing Assistance Benefits the Agency Denied to Evacuees

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a landmark victory for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a federal judge today granted Public Citizen’s request for a preliminary injunction against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to prevent the agency from terminating housing benefits for hurricane survivors without first adequately explaining its decisions.

Judge Richard J. Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the agency to restore short-term housing assistance to all evacuees whom FEMA found ineligible since Aug. 31, 2006, until they receive adequate explanation for the decision and time to appeal. In a further rebuke, FEMA was also required to pay the short-term housing assistance benefits that evacuees would have received between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30.

Public Citizen filed the emergency injunction Aug. 29 on behalf of four Katrina and Rita evacuees and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) as part of a lawsuit to order FEMA to continue benefits for thousands of hurricane evacuees until it provided constitutionally sufficient notice of why their benefits were being denied, what steps, if any, they could take to fix the situation, and how they could appeal the decisions. 

“FEMA’s intransigence in the face of such overwhelming tragedy and need was truly stunning,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. “Now victims of these horrible natural disasters will have the tools they need to receive the assistance that they are entitled to.”

Termination letters sent by FEMA after March 2006 only informed evacuees of their ineligibility for benefits, followed by an obscure computer code or phrase representing the reason for that status. FEMA claimed that recipients could use an agency manual to make sense of the code, but the lawsuit asserted that these sources and even the agency’s own employees could not provide comprehensible or adequate explanations. Although FEMA said it distributed the manual to evacuees shortly after the hurricanes and that the code book was available online, the agency’s actions were clearly inadequate to address the needs of families displaced by such a severe natural disaster.

“It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights,” Leon wrote in the decision.

The judge found that the Katrina evacuees’ “interest in continued housing assistance… could not be more fundamental and overarching than it is here” and that FEMA’s procedures for notifying evacuees of the reasons for denying them assistance fell short of constitutionally minimum standards. He concluded that FEMA’s notice procedures were “unconstitutionally vague and uninformative,” and described them as “Kafkaesque” and “cryptic.”

“This decision is a clear vindication of the evacuees’ 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.

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in Austin served as co-counsel with Public Citizen for ACORN and for the four individual plaintiffs, all of whom now reside in Texas.

To read the decision, click here.

To view the emergency temporary restraining order, click here.

To view the lawsuit, click here.

To view a copy of FEMA’s termination letter and other documents, visit exhibit oneexhibit twoexhibit three and exhibit four.

To access all other information related to this case, click here.