Thanks, But No Thanks
In Dallas, troubled FEMA can't even give away money
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."
Thanks, But No Thanks
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.
"You're adding insult to injury when you have people in New Orleans dealing with that torture and you have FEMA not getting to Dallas until September 6," he says.
On August 5, the county took part in a bio-terrorism drill where it practiced how quickly authorities could dispense medications. It was the largest exercise of its kind in the nation, encompassing 1,500 volunteers acting as victims. Thompson says that in those sorts of scenarios, the county practices handling the emergency on its own for as long as two or three days before counting on the federal government to respond. Now when the county plans for the worst, it has to lower its expectations.
"Based on this last scenario, we need to realize that we have to hold the line for a lot longer," he says.
When FEMA finally arrived in Dallas, it confused evacuees and local officials on what services it would provide. Thompson said that initially evacuees were under the impression that FEMA would provide temporary housing, which he also believed, since the agency had done so in the aftermath of other hurricanes. But FEMA officials said initially that they were not going to offer housing. The agency also provided $2,000 debit cards to some evacuees, then scrapped that in favor of a complicated application process a few days later.
Hoping to set the record straight on its role, FEMA held a meeting with African-American church leaders on September 15 at Concord Baptist Church off Camp Wisdom Road. But the agency did little to help matters.
"We don't want a whole lot of questions," was how a FEMA official began the meeting. He then unwittingly provided a glimpse into the bureaucratic intricacies that characterize the agency's response to a massive disaster. Evacuees were to be given a nine-digit PIN number in order to be eligible for aid, and it was important, he told the church leaders, that they don't lose it. Evacuees also could be denied benefits if they completed their application form incorrectly.
If anything, the FEMA meeting highlighted how much the federal government relies on the Red Cross for disaster relief. The Red Cross runs the shelters and reimburses evacuees for hotel and motel costs.
Although not as disillusioned with FEMA as Thompson, Parkland Hospital's president and chief executive officer, Ron Anderson, also encountered problems with the agency, particularly on the extent it will reimburse the hospital for the staff time, medical services and supplies it used to treat the evacuees.
"There are lots of questions on what FEMA will cover and what it won't," he says. "I suspect we won't be covered for anywhere near our expenses."
For the hospital, Anderson says, the evacuee population is like "adding another neighborhood, another poor neighborhood." In fact, a Washington Post survey showed that as many as 7 out of 10 evacuees do not have savings or checking accounts, while 6 out of 10 have a family income of less than $20,000 annually. In the days after the evacuees were relocated to the Convention Center and Reunion Arena, Parkland staff were seeing up to 700 enrollees a day. They encountered patients who were awaiting bone marrow transplants. Immediately, the hospital began working with doctors from the New Orleans public health department to understand the health needs of the evacuees. In the weeks and months ahead, Anderson predicts his hospital will see a second and third wave of evacuees consisting of those who received their initial care at church shelters along with those who need additional care. He also predicts that much like in New York City after 9/11, mental health providers will be faced with a rash of patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In general, Anderson says that the displaced residents most likely to stay are those who "didn't have any money to evacuate in the first place." As a result, he says that his hospital will have to expand capacity and open at least one new clinic.
Right now, though, it's anybody's guess how many evacuees will return to New Orleans. Thompson says that his best guess is that slightly more than half of the evacuees will return to New Orleans eventually. For now, many of them are going to need some help, even those who were never on public assistance before.
"What people are asking for is the same thing you and I would be asking for," Thompson says. "If everything has been destroyed and we have no money in savings, can we get something to get us back on our feet?"
That's what James Lemann, a displaced New Orleans resident, desperately needs. A former airplane mechanic now staying in Dallas, Lemann says that many of the evacuees aren't asking for a permanent handout, but a little help as they confront what they lost and contemplate an uncertain future.
"In my neighborhood, most of the people owned their own homes. They might have been rickety houses, but they owned them," he said outside Reunion Arena last week. "They were scraping to get by, but they were used to it. Look around you. Nobody is hollering; they're just trying to figure out what's next." --Matt Pulle
The Dallas Crown Affair
Earlier this month, as the U.S. Senate was preparing to vote on an amendment that would effectively ban commercial horse slaughter for human consumption, Kaufman Mayor Paula Bacon went to Washington to lobby Senators to support the measure, which the U.S House had passed earlier this summer. Since her election in 2003, Bacon has battled furiously to shut down one of the country's three horse processing plants, Dallas Crown, which is located on the edge of her city, adjacent to a tiny African-American neighborhood.
"I would think that what made me happiest was when Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison changed her mind and voted for the bill," Bacon says. "I felt like I communicated to her office just how extreme it has been to have my city used as a doormat by these corporate thugs."
Last week, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to severely limit commercial horse slaughtering for one year.
"It's not good news what happened in the Senate," says industry spokesperson Jim Bradshaw, who blamed the vote on pressure from misguided animal-rights activists. "And if it comes out of the Senate unchanged, it may very well be over for us."
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In Kaufman, residents of the African-American Boggy Bottoms neighborhood rejoiced. For more than 10 years, they've lived with the odors emanating from the adjacent plant, as well as a messy menu of aggravating by-products, including horse bones left in residential backyards and rats and snakes drawn to the horse hides left in an uncovered storage trailer.
"We just want to live a better life," says Robert Eldridge, a Boggy Bottoms resident. "We want to breathe; we want to go outside and not have to smell all these foul odors."
The Senate's 68-29 vote does not place an outright ban on horse slaughter, but it does remove federal funding for required meat inspectors at all three foreign-owned horse slaughter plants in the United States. The three plants will effectively no longer be able to ship horsemeat overseas for human consumption, although they can sell it to zoos. Bradshaw, who also represents Fort Worth's Beltex horse slaughter plant, maintains that Dallas Crown helps poor ranchers find a humane way to dispose of aging horses. Now, he says, the plant will look into slaughtering hogs and goats, or it could concentrate more on selling horsemeat to zoos.
Regardless, the city of Kaufman may not allow Dallas Crown to stay in business. Currently, the plant has 29 unpaid summons for city code violations at $2,000 each. Last month the city council unanimously recommended that the local Zoning Board of Adjustments decide whether the plant has violated the city's nuisance laws. The board is scheduled to vote this week. --Matt Pulle