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White House Watch

Judge's patience with FEMA at end
Scripps Howard News Service


December 15, 2006
Friday AM

WASHINGTON -- The judge's outrage comes hurtling through his words, demanding the government respond to his order that cutting off rental aid for thousands of Katrina victims just weeks after the deadly storm struck was unconstitutional, premature, incredible and "Kafkaesque."

But his fury is not new. It's been building for months. And all that seems to happen is that government lawyers file appeals.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon is no liberal and no maverick. A well-to-do establishment lawyer, he was appointed to the federal bench in 2002 by President Bush. Probably his most famous decision was siding with the Bush administration in refusing to order the release of seven detainees held without charges or trials at Guantanamo Bay. He denied their petition to be freed saying the detainees had no legal rights except what the administration wished to give them even if they alleged mistreatment or torture.

But when it comes to the administration's handling of the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which devastated the Gulf Coast last year, the judge says he is fed up.

In November he ruled that the Federal Emergency Management Agency ("You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie") violated the constitutional rights of evacuees by abruptly ending their housing payments. He ordered the government to restart the housing program for thousands of homeless refugees.

The government responded by appealing, hoping that a legal appeal would paper over the fact that the agency did not intend to comply.

A few days ago Judge Leon ordered the government lawyers back to his courtroom in Washington D.C. "Let me make this clear," he said, according to a report by the Associated Press. "Tell FEMA that I'm expecting them to get going on this. Like, immediately."

He said that there is no reason that FEMA employees can't write letters, by hand, if necessary, explaining what is going on with their expired housing assistance to at least 5,500 people made homeless by the storms.

FEMA issued a statement that it did the best it could in the aftermath of the hurricanes. "Our efforts were not perfect. We did not have a computer system that could account for displaced evacuees. We did not have the preferred financial controls and data processing systems in place; they did not exist. However, we created an emergency sheltering program that, with all its faults, provided shelter for unparalleled numbers of displaced evacuees. We used the authorities, programs and policies that we had to work with and we did the right thing."

As for the lawsuits that thousands of desperate people have been forced to bring against the government for terminating the housing program, such as it was, without proper notice, and the judge's resulting ire, FEMA says, "FEMA is proud of the assistance it was able to provide in the aftermath of the catastrophic hurricanes of 2005 .... This case remains in litigation and the agency's policy is that we do not comment on any case in pending litigation."

But more than a year after the hurricanes, thousands of evacuated residents of the Gulf Coast are facing their second Christmas without permanent housing, without jobs, without adequate medical care and, increasingly, without hope that their government, overwhelmed by fighting a losing war in Iraq, will do anything to help. News reports say that some refugee families, at their wits end, have sent their children back to New Orleans to live and go to school on their own, praying that nothing more disastrous happens to them.

The judge is frustrated. Thousands of Americans are frustrated. Many caring government workers are frustrated.

But the government itself, that plodding, massive, often unresponsive behemoth, seems unfazed. A president who wasn't bogged down in other issues, many of his own making, might shine a beacon through the fog and demand that a government that is supposed to be taking democracy to the Middle East get some justice for its own citizens.

Last August, one year after Katrina struck, Bush pledged again its victims would not be forgotten. "In keeping with the tradition of this city, New Orleans again looks to music to express her feelings. And these feelings were captured on a benefit album called, "Higher Ground." One of those songs is called, "Come Sunday," written by Duke Ellington. In her rendition of this classic, Cassandra Williams implores a loving God to "please look down and see my people through."

"Sunday has not yet come to New Orleans, but you can see it ahead. And as you approach that joyful day, you can move forward with confidence in your abilities, trust in the compassion of your fellow Americans, and faith in a loving God who makes the path through mighty waters. God bless."

Some took comfort. Many did not.


Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.

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