WASHINGTON – Over objections from two Louisiana congressmen, the federal government has cut off applications for $2,000 in emergency assistance for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, saying the program is no longer necessary.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Thursday that the stop-gap assistance was ending after $1.7 billion in cash assistance had been sent to 853,727 residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas displaced by the storms and subsequent flooding.

“It was a program that was offered for a limited period of time until other forms of assistance were available to address long-term needs of disaster victims,” said Barbara Ellis, a FEMA spokeswoman.

In its place, FEMA is offering hurricane victims housing vouchers for up to three months’ rent.

Reps. William Jefferson and Charlie Melancon, both Louisiana Democrats, said that while thousands of hurricane evacuees need rental assistance, many people eligible for the $2,000 emergency assistance grants still have not received them because of bureaucratic snafus at FEMA and difficulties getting through to the agency.

“For FEMA to cut off funds now is unacceptable,” Jefferson said. “These monies are used for food, diapers, medicines and other essential items. … Every day my office fields complaints from constituents who applied for assistance and still have yet to receive any FEMA funds.”

The congressmen, both of whose districts were hit hard by Katrina on Aug. 29 and then Rita a week ago, questioned whether all of the checks FEMA sent out actually arrived in the hands of evacuees who applied for them. Jefferson aides said some checks arrived at emergency shelters after evacuees had been relocated.

“It’s important to call back and update the information,” said FEMA’s Ellis.

When told of widespread complaints about getting through to FEMA on the toll-free line, Ellis acknowledged it’s been a problem. She advised people to call during off-peak hours.

“They need to keep calling back,” she said.

The Louisiana congressmen said that a month after Katrina made landfall, they are still being deluged with requests from people seeking help in getting the “expedited assistance” grants.

One such complaint came from Stanley Fajkowski of New Orleans. He applied over the Internet on Sept. 6.

The form he filled out asked about the condition of his home. He assumed that like much of New Orleans, it was under water, but since he hadn’t seen it, he checked the box “I don’t know.”

FEMA soon sent him a letter rejecting his application.

The 70-year-old estimates he subsequently called the toll-free FEMA number “200 times” over the next 20 days. Sometimes he was put on hold and then abruptly told he was being disconnected because of the volume of calls.

He finally got through, only to be told that he could appeal in writing. As for getting the $2,000, the deadline had passed, he was told.

“This is a nightmare,” Fajkowski said when reached by telephone in suburban Atlanta where he is staying with relatives. “I guess I should have just lied on the application.”

FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney said that Fajkowski’s “I don’t know” could have disqualified him from the expedited assistance. The problem, Kinerney said, is that the computer program wasn’t prepared to cope with a disaster like Katrina that dislodged people for such a long period of time.

“In most situations, people usually do return within a few days to check their damage,” Kinerney said in an e-mail. “In the case of Katrina, where neighborhoods are still off limits, many can’t.”

He said the computer glitch is being fixed.

(Bill Walsh can be contacted at bill.walsh(at)newhouse.com)


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