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US must resume storm aid, judge says

Court calls cuts unconstitutional

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration unconstitutionally denied aid to tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and must resume payments immediately, a federal judge ruled yesterday.

US District Judge Richard Leon said the Federal Emergency Management Agency created a "Kafkaesque" process that began cutting off rental aid in February to victims of the 2005 storms, did not provide clear reasons for the denials, and hindered applicants' due-process rights to fix errors or appeal government mistakes.

"It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights," Leon wrote in a 19-page opinion.

"Free these evacuees from the 'Kafkaesque' application process they have had to endure," he wrote.

The decision again casts a spotlight on the fate of the poorest members of the diaspora created by the 2005 disasters in New Orleans and along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts. The hurricanes forced a search for housing that was one of their least visible but most far-reaching consequences.

According to FEMA, of the 720,590 households that have received rental assistance, only 33,889 families remained eligible for aid as of Oct. 19. Another 108,088 families, mostly homeowners, are still in FEMA-provided trailers and mobile homes. As a rule of thumb, analysts estimate each household includes nearly three people.

FEMA expects fewer than 4,700 of 2.6 million applicant families to exceed a $26,200 cap on all forms of postdisaster aid by March, when an 18-month statutory cutoff takes effect.

Advocates for storm victims say FEMA has resisted calls to provide details about its programs to them or to applicants and has pared rolls by imposing obstacles to obtaining aid that is mandated under federal disaster laws.

Administration defenders say that FEMA adopted tougher rules to combat fraud and that plummeting rolls are a sign that victims have recovered and are moving on.

Yesterday, FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker would not say how many people are affected by Leon's decision, how much has been paid to them, or how much is owed. He cited "ongoing litigation" and a possible appeal.

The case affects at least 11,000 families, said Robert Doggett, a lawyer with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. Doggett and the Public Citizen Litigation Group filed suit Aug. 31 for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, an antipoverty group.

The case was brought on behalf of storm victims cut off beginning Feb. 22 from the smaller of two post-Katrina FEMA rental assistance programs, known as Section 403 aid.

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