It's been more than three years since Katrina tore up massive swaths of the Gulf Coast, displacing more than a million people. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, it seems depressingly obvious that FEMA has not learned much from that traumatic experience.
At a Texas Senate hearing last week before the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, members and witnesses expressed frustration with FEMA for its slow, unsatisfactory response in helping Southeast Texas residents recover from the ravages of Hurricane Ike, which devastated coastal areas when it swept ashore Sept. 13.
State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, represents a district that includes Beaumont and Orange County, part of the famed Golden Triangle, rich in refineries and chemical plants. He told the Chronicle that his area is in desperate need of emergency shelters, and that out of the 4,000 trailers requested, only about 200 have been delivered, despite FEMA's promise of 300 trailers a week.
"I have constituents living in cars and tents in their driveways because FEMA hasn't delivered trailers," he said. "They say we'll pay for you to stay in a hotel if you don't have a place to stay. Well, guess what? There aren't any hotels. It's frustrating. Their strategy seems to be to stall and wait these people out until they solve their problems some other way or just walk away."
Williams said he hears from local businesses that the biggest challenge in the region is a labor shortage, especially crucial right now, with $15 billion to $18 billion of plant and refinery expansion planned. "Even before Ike, we already had a shortage of suitable housing and now it's even worse," he said. "These folks who've lost their homes can't just commute 100 miles from wherever FEMA finds them a motel. And it's not just a local issue. This affects the economy of the whole state."
It's a familiar refrain: FEMA's shoddy, wasteful performance in housing victims of Katrina shocked the nation, and is often cited as one of the major reasons for public disillusionment with the Bush administration.
After Katrina, in 2006, Congress appropriated $400 million to help FEMA explore alternative types of housing for use in disaster situations, and told the agency to come up with a plan for doing so by July 1, 2007. Almost a year after its deadline, in June of this year, FEMA announced its plan, which included new, more stringent standards for formaldehyde.
The plan also called for using travel trailers as a last resort and only if that particular state's governor approved. But it offered no specifics on other types of housing units that might be under consideration.
Last Thursday the Chronicle's Mike Snyder reported on yet another FEMA screw-up. As of Oct. 29, out of 6,600 families displaced by Hurricane Ike and qualified by FEMA for a long-term rental housing program due to start Nov. 1, only 500 had been referred to the appropriate local housing authorities.
On Saturday Snyder reported the acknowledgment of FEMA deputy administrator Harvey E. Johnson Jr. that the agency has been "moving too slowly." He vowed to "redouble or triple our efforts" and to "box some ears." It's about time.
In vivid contrast to FEMA, authorities and municipalities in Houston and Southeast Texas have performed admirably when disaster strikes from the magnificent response to Katrina refugees to the resourceful handling of Ike and its aftermath. If FEMA can't get its act together, it should just get out of the way and provide funding for local entities to take care of business.