Kafka and Katrina
Published: December 2, 2006
One of the many victims of Hurricane Katrina may turn out to be the hospitality that American cities, particularly Houston, showed to people fleeing the storm. Thanks largely to the Bush administration’s catastrophic handling of the relocation crisis, Houston endured much more civic strain than it should have in caring for the tens of thousands of Louisianans who landed on its doorstep.
The administration’s mishandling of the crisis has often looked like a calculated attempt to discourage displaced people from seeking housing aid, even if it means leaving them vulnerable to homelessness. A federal district court judge implied as much this week, when he found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s aid application process was so convoluted and confusing as to be unconstitutional — and likened it to something out of a horror story by Kafka.
Judge Richard Leon ruled that FEMA had unconstitutionally denied housing aid to thousands of residents who were displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He ordered the government to resume payments immediately, pointing to blind alleys and contradictory information that often led vulnerable families to lose aid without understanding why or having reasonable recourse to appeal.
In Houston, people are at least being housed now in apartments rather than remote trailer camps where other displaced Louisianans have now been trapped for more than a year . But throughout this saga, FEMA has whipsawed the survivors and their host communities with unpredictable policy changes that have hindered the resettlement process and kept everyone on edge. Despite those obstacles, many have managed to get on their feet.
But Houston must still worry about impoverished and hard-to-employ refugees who represent an enormous burden in health care, law enforcement and education costs. City officials also say that the federal government has been unpredictably late and tightfisted with badly needed aid.
The administration made its most disastrous misstep when it failed to enlist the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was created to deal with just these kinds of situations. If the administration had provided Section 8 housing vouchers through HUD, families could have been directed to affordable housing all over the country. No one city would have been asked to absorb tens of thousands of people.