By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans and 25,000 of the city's residents fled to Dallas County, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aggravated local leaders by its languid response and lack of clear communication. County officials received conflicting information on what the agency would provide to the evacuees and what services would be reimbursed. A month later, a recharged FEMA is now working diligently with the city and county governments and is promising to pay Dallas back for just about everything spent taking care of its newest residents, but distrust lingers as Mayor Laura Miller refuses to participate in an agency program that would reimburse the city for signing six- to 12-month leases for any evacuees.
"The Dallas taxpayers are not going to sign apartment leases for individual people and be responsible for six to 12 months rent," Miller says. "It's bad policy. It's very risky."
Already, she says, the federal government owes Dallas $2.5 million for Katrina-related expenses. "They say we're going to get repaid, but we haven't yet."
While Miller seems to lack confidence in FEMA to follow through on its generous housing offer, Houston is participating in FEMA's program and is signing leases for evacuees. FEMA says it can offer the same program in Dallas and that there is no reason to worry that the agency will stick the city with the bill.
"If FEMA says we're going to reimburse the city, then we'll reimburse the city," says Mike Sweet, an agency spokesman in Washington, D.C.
The mayor, though, says that Project Exodus, a public-private effort at providing two months free rent to the residents at city shelters, is meeting the needs of the evacuees. Raising money from private donations as well as the sale of Mardi Gras beads at local 7-Elevens, the project assigns a host family to guide the shelter residents during their transition. So far, it has found housing for 220 families.
"Unlike some other cities, we have raised $2 million in private money to help get these people started," Miller says of the project that was hatched at a dinner at her North Dallas home. "We're helping people who have lost everything."
And what happens after the two months, when Project Exodus' generosity is timed to expire? "FEMA has to pay the rent on day 61," she says sternly.
But it won't be that easy, says Steve Dooley, an organizer with the activist group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) who has talked with both FEMA and the mayor's office about housing .
"I don't know how that's going to work," he says about Miller's post-Exodus plan. "FEMA has told us repeatedly that they can't sign leases directly with landlords."
Dooley says that ACORN is perplexed that the mayor is turning down FEMA's offer.
"FEMA is saying, 'We want to house people for at least six months,' and she's saying no," Dooley says. He adds that Project Exodus, while well-intentioned, has mainly targeted the evacuees who were staying at the shelters or with friends and family--a relatively small number compared with those at local hotels and motels. Unless Project Exodus raises more money to relocate those evacuees, they will have no place to go.
"When you have millions of federal dollars available right now, it doesn't make sense to try to raise private money by selling Mardi Gras beads."
With the mayor unwilling to take another look at FEMA's housing offer, ACORN is considering turning to the Dallas City Council, which could vote to override Miller's decision.
While FEMA is now offering a lavish program that would help ease the stress on evacuees as they figure out how to rebuild their lives, the agency has only itself to blame for its lack of credibility. FEMA didn't engender confidence by its initial reaction to both the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast and the urgent needs of evacuees in Dallas.
Zachary Thompson, the director of the Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services, says Dallas received little help from the agency in the first few days when the county was responding to a messy, dynamic situation.
On August 30, more than 200 evacuees began to trickle into Dallas, staying initially at the Samuell Grand recreation facility, where the Red Cross set up a shelter. A day later, the Grauwyler recreation facility was opened for another 185 evacuees. Then after Katrina made New Orleans uninhabitable and thousands of evacuees were directed to Dallas, local officials relocated the displaced residents to the convention center and Reunion Arena, turning what looked like a short and modest relief operation into a grave and intense enterprise.
Medical staff at Parkland Hospital tended to 6,000 evacuees, many of whom were dehydrated, malnourished and physically and psychologically battered. The Red Cross began registering evacuees as well.
Meanwhile, as the county was shuffling evacuees and tending to their medical needs, FEMA was nowhere to be found, Thompson says. It was not until September 6, more than a week after the first evacuees came into Dallas, that the agency offered any significant help on the ground to local officials.