Judge blocks FEMA from cutting hurricane rental aid

June 15, 2007

Reported by: Associated Press

A federal judge in New Orleans has blocked the Federal Emergency Management Agency from pulling rental aid from hurricane victims BEFORE they have a chance to appeal. U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan also harshly chastised the agency for its "cavalier" attitude toward evacuees.

The ruling, issued late Wednesday, comes in a lawsuit filed in April against FEMA. The agency is trying to phase out housing assistance programs for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and move them out of trailers and apartments it has been paying for.

Since 2005, when those storms hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, FEMA has been swamped by the volume of people in need.

Berrigan's ruling stops FEMA from halting rental assistance until an appeal can be filed in individual cases. Currently, aid ceases when FEMA determines someone is not eligible for aid.

In court filings, the agency said the injunction would overwhelm FEMA and prevent it from carrying out" its duty of "responding promptly to disasters as they occur."

FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker says the agency is reviewing Berrigan's decision.

Also, Berrigan certified the lawsuit, filed by four Katrina victims whose rental assistance was discontinued, as a class covering about 31-thousand households across the nation that rely on FEMA to pay rent.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Adam Strochak, says the ruling will allow people who recently lost subsidies to continue getting help until they have a chance to appeal.

To get aid, victims must prove their former homes are inhabitable and they do not have the means to pay rent. The rental program has been plagued by fraud and FEMA has tried to ferret out people who have improperly received assistance.