Three Things Congress (Yes, Congress) Must Do to Fix FEMA

"If catastrophe comes," President Barack Obama said last year in New Orleans, "the American people must be able to call on a competent government. When I am President, the days of dysfunction and cronyism in Washington will be over."

In the words of poet Bryan Guinness, Obama's "speech is like rain, falling among parched thoughts."

Competent leadership will be welcome, but it will not be enough for FEMA to recover from its own disaster.

Real recovery will require action by Congress, especially when it comes to post-disaster housing. Of the many tragic failures of FEMA in the last seven years, those related to housing were among the most conspicuous. And they were caused in part by Congressional blunders.

Before the next big earthquake, or ice storm, or hurricane, Congress must take three critical steps:

1. Restore FEMA's status as a stand-alone, Cabinet-level agency. Lumping it into the Department of Homeland Security with 21 other agencies has added the drag of more bureaucracy with no discernible benefit. President Obama seemed to be speaking in favor of this when, in that same speech in New Orleans, he promised that his FEMA director would report directly to him.

2. Reverse the terrible decision to put HUD in charge of disaster housing. With the Natural Disaster Housing Act of 2006, Congress set up a never-ending labyrinth for shell-shocked disaster victims. First they see their homes shredded by weather or filled up with water, then they must navigate not one but two federal agencies. They must prove to FEMA they qualify for help, then they schlep to HUD to ask for housing vouchers (which landlords are wary of accepting). After that, they're likely to get sent to a public housing authority, agencies not exactly known for their agility and empathy. According to the Houston Chronicle, this Kafka-like limbo last year stranded more than 13,000 families displaced by Hurricane Ike.

3. Bring back Mortgage and Rental Assistance. The blueprint for disaster housing during the Clinton Administration, this program set standards, deadlines and expectations for helping people either keep or return to their homes. In 2000, Congress passed the Disaster Mitigation Act, which eliminated MRA and replaced it with a program that said, in essence, "Oh, and when it comes to housing, the President should really do something about that."

If the foreclosure crisis has taught us anything, it's that everyone suffers when large numbers of people default on mortgages and fall behind on their rent all at once. Where we once had one, just one, disaster housing program that worked mostly as it was supposed to, now we have a new housing program for each disaster. Sometimes, a disaster gets many housing programs, which means that some people get help when they need it, and others get fed into a bureaucratic meat grinder.

The human toll has been staggering -- discrimination, exploitation, and skyrocketing rates of homelessness and attempted suicide.

A few highlights:

Toxic Trailers
After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA moved about 144,000 families into these trailers, which we now know were contaminated with high levels of formaldehyde. Some were set up in trailer parks so remote it was impossible for residents to look for and hold down jobs. In other areas, FEMA crammed the trailers onto too-small plots of land, leading to health problems, crime and just plain misery for the people stuck there.

A study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine found that half of the trailer park residents were clinically depressed. The suicide rate was 15 percent higher than the national average; also, residents were 79 percent more likely to attempt suicide.

FEMA spent more than $3 billion on those trailers, giving no-bid contracts to four politically-connected, generous-to-Republicans companies: Bechtel, CH2MHill, Fluor and the Shaw Group.

The Freedom to Discriminate
By building "flexibility" into FEMA laws, Congress inadvertently created loopholes that made it easier for officials to treat some disaster victims more equally than others.

One program, which gave federal grants to homeowners so they could rebuild, required 70 percent of the money to go to moderate-income families. But Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Republican lobbyist and one-time chair of the Republican National Committee, persuaded the Bush Administration to drop that rule. The grants have since flowed easily to the wealthiest homeowners in Barbour's state, while lower-income families who owned shoreline property saw their applications languish. When they were good and desperate, casinos swooped in and bought their property from them, for below-market prices, naturally.

Moderate-income people who did not own shorefront real estate fared even worse -- evicted from FEMA trailers, they could not afford to rent any of the few apartments available in the Gulf Coast, where rents have doubled and, in some places, tripled.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, one of HUD's first actions as the point agency for disaster-housing was to approve and finance a plan to tear down public housing complexes, replacing 4,500 low-income units with 1,500. Private developers are using the money to build mixed housing -- a blend of public housing, affordable housing for people with slightly higher incomes, and market-rate housing.

In other words, tax dollars are paying to enrich private developers and gentrify huge swaths of New Orleans, while violating one of the most basic rights of disaster evacuees -- the right to go home.

And in Houston, tens of thousands of those evacuees -- who would like to return to New Orleans but can't because of the Gulf Coast's post-hurricane housing shortage -- have been shoehorned into slums. The Houston Chronicle reported last summer that the city rushed more than 20,000 mostly low-income, mostly black, Katrina evacuees into substandard housing. Since then, crime in those neighborhoods has soared while the buildings, already in poor shape, deteriorated rapidly.

Now you've got it; now you don't
While some Katrina evacuees got toxic trailers and some are living in decrepit buildings in Houston, others received housing vouchers to pay for apartments they found on their own. The vouchers were supposed to be good for a year, but FEMA abruptly and without notice cut them off for 18,000 people after about six months. The move touched off panic and confusion, as well as a legal battle during which the government announced that housing aid would soon return; a week later, FEMA reneged again.

Under Mortgage and Rental Assistance, disaster evacuees could get help with housing costs for up to 18 months.

Sisyphus' boulder is made of red tape
Putting FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security is a decision that created its own housing debacles. In 2005, two weeks after Katrina, the federal Department of Veterans' Affairs offered to let FEMA use 7,000 vacant houses that it owned in New Orleans.

VA workers were readying the houses for evacuees when DHS ordered them to stop, saying no one moved in until it worked out an inter-agency agreement. ABC News reported that the houses then sat empty for more than three months.

Hotels to homelessness
Just as abruptly as it cut off housing vouchers to some Katrina evacuees, FEMA announced five months after the disaster that it would no longer cover the bills for those living in hotels. The agency decided that "it was time" to end the hotel stays, even though housing in New Orleans was then still so scarce that FEMA's own website listed only five two-bedroom apartments for rent. Most of the 12,000 families still living in hotels had nowhere to go when they were kicked out.

Speaking of homelessness
About 12,000 people are homeless in New Orleans, double the number pre-Katrina. That's 4 percent of New Orleans' total population, or one homeless person for every 25 residents. It's the highest rate in the nation.

Taken together, these tragedies illustrate how, in the last eight years, the Bush Administration has exploited various loopholes in FEMA law to change the way the nation responds to disasters. It has moved our policy away from one that was efficient and fair to one that's more easily manipulated to punish political enemies and reward friends with lucrative contracts and discount prices on valuable real estate. (Naomi Klein calls it disaster capitalism; for more about how it's been deployed in New Orleans, see her book, The Shock Doctrine.)

Setting aside the human suffering caused by these policies for just a moment, I want to point out that this attitude toward disaster aid is also the polar opposite of how the American people want and expect FEMA to work.

Look at how Americans react after a hurricane or a flood or a particularly devastating tornado. They leap into action. They bring their own boats to pull strangers off rooftops, or rescue them from airplanes sinking in the Hudson River. They open their homes to the displaced. They hop in their cars and get on buses for the privilege of clearing debris or handing out blankets and water.

As a caseworker for the Salvation Army's disaster program for survivors of the September 11th attacks, I worked side-by-side with a father and son who closed their family business in Minneapolis for a week and drove to New York City to dish out lunch to our clients. About 100 members of one church in California came to help us write rent checks for people who were forced out of their homes. The people of Hawaii sent us 1,800 leis.

And after a disaster, Americans clean out their wallets. They gave September 11th disaster relief efforts $2.8 billion. After Hurricane Katrina, they gave $3 billion. Just a few weeks after Hurricane Ike, the tally stood at $19 million -- and that's in the middle of a global financial crisis.

But after that initial surge of goodwill, we expect FEMA and local government to handle the rest -- to clear the wreckage, to rebuild damaged communities, to restore our neighbors to their homes.

I believe this ideal springs from a deep vein of compassion that Americans are known for. But it also comes from an understanding of the true nature of disaster. We've all seen enough wildfires and earthquakes and tornadoes on CNN to know how random it is. We want everyone to benefit from disaster aid because we know next time, that could be us standing amid the rubble.

Of course, it's not all kindness and empathy. It's also practicality. It is bad for the economy, bad for the nation, to let entire communities wither and die; to let their residents, broke and traumatized, wash up on the shores of other communities that may or may not have the resources to absorb them; to leave infrastructures to rot.

Generous, practical and egalitarian -- that's the disaster policy Americans want. But for seven years, we've been given instead a policy that helps some, and leaves others to languish and blame themselves.

"I feel like I woke up and I am at fault for the hurricane," a Katrina survivor now living in Phoenix told the Louisiana Weekly. "And now, I am paying the price."

Congress can fix that. And it must. Now.