A version of this article previously appeared in the Spring 2007 edition of the TRLA Times.
Uprooted from their homes and apartments in Louisiana, Katrina and Rita evacuees found immediate refuge after the storm within convention centers, schools, emergency shelters, and churches. After finding safety, evacuees were shuffled into motels, apartments, mobile homes, and travel trailers for the short term and told they could apply for long-term housing assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
After evacuees applied, thousands started to receive denial letters. When TRLA client
Joseph Douglas opened his letter, FEMA’s stated reason for denial was an indecipherable, three-letter computer code without any meaningful explanation for his ineligibility. And Douglas was but one of many.
In Summer 2006, TRLA law clerks, paralegals, and attorneys started to receive a trickle of phone calls. A handful of hurricane evacuees in Austin had found eviction notices placed on their doors. For months, as part of FEMA’s short-term housing program, cities across Texas paid rent to landlords for evacuees staying in apartments and motels while evacuees applied for long-term FEMA housing assistance. But when FEMA announced its plans to end its short-term housing program, some evacuees faced losing the roofs over their heads.
“We started seeing eviction cases in June and July,” said TRLA Housing attorney Kelli Howard. “Evacuees who had not qualified for long-term housing assistance had 30 days to move out from the only shelter they had.”
Many evacuees facing eviction claimed they had been denied benefits for unclear reasons. Evacuees showed TRLA staff their denial letters: instead of a clear explanation, FEMA had listed a cryptic, three-letter computer code as the stated reason for the denial, referring evacuees to a FEMA guide book for additional
information. TRLA client Joseph Douglas received the following explanation: “IIO-Ineligible-Other.”
TRLA’s attempts to help evacuees confirm why their housing benefits had been denied proved fruitless. The letters did not include information regarding how to correct any problems with submitted applications, and FEMA representatives did not consistently interpret the meaning of FEMA’s codes.
“In July, we wrote FEMA a detailed letter explaining why their benefit ineligibility notices were inadequate,” said TRLA attorney Jerome Wesevich. “FEMA didn’t want to listen.”
In tomorrow’s edition of 10 Years Later: A look at the people brought to us as a result of Hurricane Katrina.