Thursday's NY Times reports that 13 plaintiffs have joined in a class action suit against FEMA.
The complaint, to be filed on Thursday in Federal District Court in New Orleans, states that the agency has "failed to fulfill its mandate" in providing housing assistance to the storm's victims. . . .
The complaint charges FEMA with imposing "retroactively inconsistent rules," in Mr. Hayward's case and others. It also asserts that the agency has been inexcusably slow in processing applications and has unfairly denied claims from large families and unrelated individuals sharing the same address. The plaintiffs are not seeking damages, but immediate assistance (emphasis added).
The preliminary statement is also worth reading:
“This is a national disgrace. FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.”
Terry Ebbert, New Orleans Homeland Security Chief, September 1, 2005
1. The federal agency charged by statute to care for Americans who are victims of natural disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”), failed to fulfill its mandate before, during and after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. As a result, more than two months after the tragedy, thousands of Americans continue to be victimized, this time by bureaucratic inaction, indifference and incompetence. FEMA has failed to provide temporary housing assistance to these disaster victims in violation of the plain requirements of federal law. The poor and vulnerable – including children, the elderly, and the disabled – are suffering the most.
2. As of this late date, FEMA has:
• Failed to provide any temporary housing assistance to certain individuals and families, including those with disabilities, who applied for help as much as two months ago;
• Failed to provide basic information to disaster victims regarding the scope and conditions of the available temporary housing assistance, including how they can continue to receive financial assistance beyond the initial three month period;
• Denied temporary housing assistance to individuals who lived at the same address, but in a separate home as another, unrelated, person who also applied for housing assistance;
• Refused to provide additional temporary housing assistance to families that, because of their size, were entitled to more than the standard amount of housing assistance;
• Required disaster victims to apply for Small Business Administration (“SBA”) loans as a condition for obtaining FEMA temporary housing assistance; and
• Imposed retroactively inconsistent rules regarding funds some victims have already received.
3. There is no excuse for these failures by FEMA, which demand redress and relief. The dimensions of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath were neither unpredictable nor unexpected. Indeed, FEMA itself participated in emergency preparedness drills predicated on a storm of precisely this dimension and magnitude, striking exactly where it hit, and leaving this many people in need of temporary housing.
4. Many more fortunate individuals (some of whom were, themselves, victims of Hurricane Katrina) provided aid to those less fortunate. But extraordinary individual acts of generosity are no substitute for government action; nor are they a defense for government inaction.
5. Our government has shown itself capable, in a short amount of time, of deploying and housing more than one hundred thousand troops, in the arid deserts of Iraq, in an area devoid of electricity, to help the Iraqi people. It was able, virtually overnight, to send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims halfway around the world. No less should be extended to its own people, on their home soil, in the wake of a national disaster.
6. This action, therefore, is brought by 13 named plaintiffs, on their own behalf and on behalf of a class of people similarly situated, seeking an order that FEMA obey the laws put into place to address the problems associated with this kind of tragedy, and provide temporary housing assistance to those victims eligible to receive it. Plaintiffs seek injunctive and declaratory relief, requiring defendants to provide housing assistance to eligible applicants and develop and implement procedures to communicate and implement the statutory relief that victims of Hurricane Katrina are entitled to, including, but not limited to:
• The immediate distribution of temporary housing assistance to all victims who have applied for and are eligible for such assistance;
• The provision of immediate safe housing (trailers or otherwise) for those victims who remain in shelters, tents or makeshift housing;
• The creation of guidelines for registration, eligibility, and receipt of temporary housing assistance that are clear, understandable, and take into account the mental and physical limitations of the applicants, including the elimination of burdensome and complex requirements such as requiring victims to fill out SBA loan applications;
• The creation and/or maintenance of additional disaster recovery centers (“DRCs”) and FEMA’s 800 number, staffed with a sufficient number of employees capable of assisting victims in their efforts to apply for, understand, and obtain FEMA benefits;
• The development and distribution of communication methods to reach victims lacking knowledge of or access to computers or phones;
• The development and distribution of guidelines that clearly detail how to obtain continued financial assistance beyond the initial three month period;
• The development and distribution of guidelines for the granting of adjustments to take into consideration family size and other factors, including pre-Katrina housing arrangements;
• The elimination of unfair, retroactive rules regarding the use of funds already received; and
• The suspension of FEMA’s policy of allowing and/or promoting the eviction of residents from trailer parks and the destruction of their trailers to make room for FEMA trailers.
7. Relief is sought because it appears that, absent judicial oversight, the victimization will continue.