Confusion and delays plague temporary housing programs for Hurricane Ike survivors

I have been spending some time this week trying to understand the way the FEMA temporary housing assistance programs have been working for the victims of Hurricane Ike. Even as a person who has spent considerable time reading and studying the FEMA programs and guidelines I have found it difficult to comprehend what is going on.

Little wonder then that there is widespread confusion and frustration among Hurricane Ike survivors about the FEMA temporary housing programs.

The first phase temporary housing program was the FEMA Hotel/Motel Program. This program was established a week or two after the hurricane. It reimburses households whose homes are now unlivable due to hurricane damage for the cost of staying in a hotel. Initially, as many as 24,000 households were staying in hotels. At the beginning of this week that number had fallen to about 7,000.

On Tuesday of this week the Houston Chronicle reported that FEMA cut off assistance to about 3,500 of the 7,000 households staying in hotels. One reason cited by FEMA was that on-site inspections by the agency showed that the condition of these 3,500 households was sufficient to allow them to stay in their homes instead of a hotel. The newspaper reports that many of the households cut off from the Hotel/Motel Assistance Program say that their homes are not habitable despite FEMA’s inspection findings.

Other hurricane survivors are reported to have been cut off from the program because they were living with someone else before the storm. The Galveston County Daily News reports that FEMA contends that only people who were paying rent or making mortgage payments before the disaster are eligible for FEMA assistance.  This policy was an issue of much controversy and litigation regarding the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The second phase of the FEMA temporary housing assistance program is known as the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP). This program provides people assistance to rent an apartment while they make arrangements to repair their homes. FEMA will reimburse hurricane survivors for the full cost of rent until May 1 when families will be required to contribute $50 a month toward their rent.  That amount increases by $50 each month until the families are either paying all of the rent or until they move out into their repaired home.

This second phase temporary housing program is set to begin today. But it has been delayed. Families must be enrolled in the program through a local public housing authority. In order to enroll a family must be referred to a public housing authority by FEMA. While an estimated 6,000 households qualify, the Houston Chronicle reports only 500 families have been referred to public housing authorities.

FEMA claims it is providing direct funding to these families in the form of checks or bank deposits to bridge the gap until the families can be referred and enrolled in the DHAP program.

Other households have sought temporary housing assistance from FEMA in the form of trailers to be located next to their damaged homes. Extreme levels of anger and frustration both on the part of survivors and on the part of local elected officials have been directed at FEMA’s slow pace of providing these trailers. Lots of finger pointing has gone on between federal, state and local officials regarding who is to blame for the slow level at which trailers have been brought into the disaster area.

FEMA says 262 mobile homes are now occupied and another 350 are on individuals’ property awaiting sewer and power hookups. But local officials say thousands are needed.

If you put yourself in the shoes of a hurricane survivor you can imagine just how frustrating and confusing this process seems.