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The order seemed simple enough: Just tell them why. Tell the estimated 5,479 households of Hurricane Katrina victims in Texas why they were denied federal housing assistance. No more “Kafkaesque” bureaucracy. Just why. And in plain English. But that Nov. 29 order from a federal judge was too much for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to handle. It would be too expensive, too cumbersome, and it would divert too many resources, the agency argued. (Forget that the judge said the agency made “misinterpretations” and “mischaracterizations” of his order on appeal.) But after 14 days of inaction, Judge Richard Leon had enough foot-dragging. This was, he said in a hearing last week, a “legal disaster.” The standoff between FEMA and Leon, who sits on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is only the most recent rebuke the beleaguered agency has been hit with since its bungled response to the August 2005 storm, the nation’s worst natural disaster in memory. Yet, as the case played out in court last week, what became clear was that the agency’s relief efforts are still drawing sharp criticism, even if they are, as FEMA argued, a result of limited resources. During the Dec. 13 hearing, Leon took the agency to task. The issue at hand was the thousands of displaced Katrina victims to whom FEMA denied long-term housing assistance with virtually no explanation from the agency. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now filed suit Aug. 29 on behalf of 18,000 Katrina households and two days later asked for special relief for the Texas-based victims whose emergency housing aid expired that day. Last month, Leon ordered that those Texas residents receive clearer explanations for their denial along with a thorough description of how to appeal, but the order generated confusion. Lawyers on both sides initially thought Leon referred to all 18,000 Katrina households who were part of the initial suit. Leon felt compelled to clarify what he thought had been obvious: that the order only included the 5,479 households in Texas. Even though it’s unclear how many of those Texas-based families will appeal, their time is running out. The program, which provides on average $750 a month, expires in February, barring an extension. “We need to keep moving forward because the window of opportunity is closing,” Leon repeated over and over during the two-hourlong hearing. But what most bothered Leon, a pugnacious judge who was sporting a red and white striped bow tie under his black robe, was that the agency had done nothing since his order. “Two weeks have been lost, and I don’t want another day lost. Frankly, I don’t want another hour lost.” Michael Sitcov, the Justice Department lawyer representing FEMA, offered an explanation for the agency’s stalling. Created eight years ago, the agency’s database could not calculate a precise number of affected households, he said. “It is not as adept at doing the kind of machinations that would be required to get an absolutely clear number,” he said. But even if it locked down the figure, Sitcov continued, FEMA couldn’t write checks to the families directly because the law required it to work through local intermediaries. So what? Leon asked. Why not just call the people who handled these claims before and “ask them a very simple question”? “Tell your client,” Leon told Sitcov. “Tell FEMA I’m expecting them to get going with this, immediately. I mean, get on the phone and start talking to people in government agencies.” But Sitcov was stuck on the statute. “It isn’t possible for us to make payments to them directly,” Sitcov said. Leon continued to push back. “I’m willing to bet, not that I’m a betting man, that these agencies would be able to continue,” Leon said. He added: “I don’t want us to get so immersed in the minutiae of the laws and regulations that these people don’t get helped.” But that is precisely what the government was caught up in. So, like a teacher instructing a slow student, Leon broke the process down step by step. A “seasoned” bureaucrat would take 15 minutes to explain the appeal. That person could do four an hour, 32 in a day. If 10 bureaucrats took on the task, Leon mused, working overtime and weekends, well, they could have the job done in two weeks — the amount of time that had elapsed since his order. “I’m having a little trouble understanding why this is so complicated,” Leon said. He paused. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Michael Kirkpatrick of Public Citizen, agreed this should not be a “herculean task.” Then Leon turned to the government’s representative and asked,”Mr. Sitcov, do you want to take a whack at that one?” Cautiously, Sitcov approached the podium. He pointed to the agency’s antiquated database once again, which he noted was never intended for a disaster as massive as Katrina. The reason, he continued, that the agency’s letters gave no explanation for denial was because the “fields are too small” in the database to include a full explanation. “There is simply nothing FEMA can do about it.” “Wait a minute,” Leon said, interrupting Sitcov. “FEMA is in charge.” That is the point he will try to drill into the agency at another hearing on Dec. 18, when he plans to question key officials on what they’ve done so far and why the agency is struggling to comply with his order.
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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