ATLANTA, GA — The National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) Hurricane Task Force met in Atlanta to gather information from FEMA, HUD and the American Red Cross on assistance available to the survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Mississippi state Rep. Mary H. Coleman, President of NBCSL, Georgia state Rep. Stan Watson, Chair of the NBCSL Hurricane Task Force, state Rep. Michael Murphy, Chair of the Michigan Black Legislative Caucus, and North Carolina state Rep. Earline Parmon met with disaster relief officials, members of Congress, and community and business leaders to develop a comprehensive plan of action to rebuild lives and communities.
The NBCSL Hurricane Task Force released the following statement:
“The National Black Caucus of State Legislators is committed to ensuring that the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita are able to return home, reconnect with their families and participate in the rebuilding of their communities. Black state legislators are on the frontline and we are results-oriented. ‘Compassion fatigue’ is not an option. Our job includes keeping the needs of hurricane survivors on the radar screens of decision makers at the state, local and national levels. Nearly three months after the worst natural disaster in U.S. history:
– 6,644 are still missing, including more than 1,000 children
– 2,000 survivors are living in shelters
– 150,000 evacuees face eviction from hotel rooms on December 1
– 100,000 mortgages may be foreclosed in January 2006.
“Clearly, there is unfinished business. Human needs — including housing, jobs, mental health counseling — are not being met. Black state legislators must remain vigilant. Donor fatigue is not an option. We are on the frontline. Hurricane survivors are our constituents, our neighbors, and in some cases, NBCSL members.
“We must make sure that programs, policies and resources are in place to help hurricane survivors. We came here to get answers for our constituents and, frankly, some of the responses from FEMA and HUD are unacceptable.
“Though FEMA has extended the deadline to December 15 for evacuees in Louisiana to leave their hotel rooms, it’s still unacceptable. Where will they go? Where is the compassion? It is immoral and heartless to threaten people who have suffered so much with homelessness 10 days before Christmas. NBCSL calls on FEMA to extend the deadline until at least January 1, 2006 for evacuees living in hotels throughout the Katrina Diaspora.
“We are also concerned that FEMA has awarded a $66 million grant to a consortium of faith-based organizations to provide case management services to evacuees with no input from groups like Hosea Feed the Hungry, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and Save Our Selves that stepped up and filled in the gaps when FEMA and the Red Cross were nowhere to be found.
“The process must be opened up to allow groups with demonstrated capacity and ongoing relationships with evacuees to share in the resources. The lack of culturally competent disaster assistance undermines our efforts to ensure that our constituents have timely access to the information they need to rebuild their lives.
“We call on FEMA to honor its pledge to reopen the bidding process for the hundreds of millions of dollars of no-bid contracts that have been awarded. Small businesses are the engines of job creation. Small and minority businesses must have a meaningful opportunity to participate in the rebuilding of their communities.
“The NBCSL Hurricane Task Force also calls on HUD to extend its moratorium on mortgage foreclosures, which is set to expire next week. NBCSL will send a letter to Secretary Alphonso Jackson requesting that HUD follow the example of Freddie Mac and place a 12-month moratorium on foreclosures. A house is most Americans’ single biggest investment. To lose one’s home under these circumstances would be unconscionable.
“The challenge of rebuilding lives requires a comprehensive response. NBCSL supports the hurricane relief legislation introduced by the Congressional Black Caucus, H.R. 4197, the “Hurricane Katrina Recovery, Reclamation, Restoration, Reconstruction and Reunion Act of 2005.” The bill will serve as a model for NBCSL members as state legislatures convene next year. We call on NBCSL members to urge their congressional delegations to support the legislation.”
Founded in 1977, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators is a nonpartisan Section 501(c)(3) organization with more than six hundred members in 44 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands. For more information, please visit our Web site at http://www.nbcsl.com.
This update was written by the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29. By the morning of August 30, Rep. Michael C. Murphy, chairperson of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus (MLBC) said, “Our hearts go out to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. We are taking action now to help get supplies to the people and to help get people out of New Orleans. We can’t afford to wait, because people are suffering and dying.”
Phone calls were made to state and local leaders and media conferences were scheduled across the state hosted by members of the MLBC in their respective legislative districts. The primary objective was to raise the awareness of the devastation that Katrina had caused and to mobilize people across the state to find ways to provide immediate assistance to the hurricane victims.
Immediately after Katrina hit New Orleans, The Michigan Legislative Black Caucus knew there was a national need to respond to this heart wrenching disaster and to provide whatever assistance we could to help the people. The Caucus was the first entity in Michigan to bring attention to the need to respond to the plight of Katrina victims. To our knowledge, there had been no prior initiation of assistance at any level of Michigan’s government.
As a result of the MLBC day of awareness, activities began throughout the state. This summary document will focus primarily on efforts in Lansing, MI, Rep. Michael C. Murphy’s legislative district.
The caucus appointed Dr. Freya Rivers, a native of Louisiana to coordinate its efforts. The Lansing School District superintendent agreed to open closed school buildings to use as shelters and Kelly Dean of Dean Trailways agreed to partner with the caucus to send three busses filled with needed items to Louisiana and to bring back 150 people for whom we would provide shelter and other needed services. Collection sites were set up to receive items. The word was spread through the media and a Katrina listserv. Within 48 hours, over 30,000 lbs of needed items were collected and sorted and ready to be transported from Lansing to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Thousands of volunteers had signed up to help. Unions, community based organizations, churches and individuals all answered the MLBC’s call for help.
On Saturday, September 3, the busses left for Baton Rouge. There had been constant communications between the Michigan and Louisiana Black Caucuses, to make certain that the items we were collecting were those most needed and to make sure that there would be no deterrents to our busses getting to the agreed upon destinations. Because of this coordination, the busses arrived and were unloaded at Southern University without a hitch.
Our only disappointment was that we were unable to bring more than two families back to Lansing. By this time we had partnered with the Lansing School District and the Lansing Red Cross and had a shelter ready with arrangements for health care, counselors, schools, social events, meals, day care and other miscellaneous services. Griffin Rivers, a Louisiana native who traveled on one of the busses, visited all of the shelters to extend the invitation. It is our understanding, however, that because of overwhelming crowds in the Baton Rouge shelters, many of the people who had been identified to come to Lansing had been bussed to Houston, San Antonio and Phoenix.
By this time Governor Jennifer Granholm had met with the state’s emergency team and offered the services of the state of Michigan. Arrangements were made for hundreds of evacuees to be flown to Battle Creek, MI for a temporary shelter at Fort Custer. Representative Michael Murphy traveled to Fort Custer to greet the evacuees. After remaining in Fort Custer for several days, they were relocated to several cities across the state, including Lansing.
In the meantime, we combined forces with the governor’s office. She asked the mayors of each community to assume the leadership role in developing a local plan to assist the evacuees, which would include individual housing for each of the evacuees rather than group shelters. The time spent at Fort Custer gave us time to work with other agencies to identify individual housing. Our goal was to provide the services that were most needed for the displaced victims of Louisiana.
Lansing’s Mayor Tony Benavides hosted a meeting on September 6 with representatives from the MLBC, several service organizations, and local and county officials where we shared MLBC’s efforts and plans. We recommended that St. Vincent Catholic Charities be the lead agency in preparation for the evacuees who would be coming to Lansing. This was supported by the coalition. St. Vincent has the primary responsibility for resettling refugees in the Lansing area and is known for its excellence in providing services similar to those needed for evacuees.
Evacuees In Lansing
Lansing has received 120 Katrina Evacuees including 86 Adults (18 – 64 years old), 5 seniors (65 +), and 29 children (under 18). Forty-eight are female and seventy-two are male. There are twelve families with children. Six of the 120 people have left to return to Louisiana or other destinations. One person was found to be ineligible for services.
The greater Lansing community has opened its arms to the evacuees. All of them received houses or apartments fully furnished with food in cupboards and refrigerators. Each person or family has a supportive person or group assigned to assist them in becoming acclimated to the area. These sponsors provide friendship, as well as assistance in many areas, such as transportation to job interviews, doctors’ appointments, parent-teacher conferences and social events.
Evacuees have received medical, dental and counseling services, when needed. They have also received assistance in job seeking and skills training. Community organizations and churches have provided numerous social events. The president of Michigan State University provided tickets for each evacuee to attend the Michigan vs Michigan football game preceded by lunch. Clothes have been provided, especially in preparation for cold winter days.
One evacuee arrived in Lansing with her month old daughter and year old son. At that time she had no idea where her 10 year old son was. We are pleased to state that thanks to the hard work of volunteers on the INTERNET, she has been reunited with her son.
Trucks on the Road
Even though we were working diligently with the evacuees in Lansing, the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus did not forget the needs that still existed in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and was quite concerned about areas that received less attention than New Orleans, but had great needs. Working through the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus, the MLBC sent two trucks with 46 foot trailers full of needed items to Mobile, Greensborough and Thomasville, Alabama. The trucks were provided by The Lansing Community College Truck Driver Training Program with the transportation expenses donated by the college. Additional trucks and vans loaded with goods were also sent from Lansing throughout the south.
We know that many of the people who have come to Lansing will never return to Louisiana. There is nothing left there for them. Some of them are adjusting well to the change. Others feel the loneliness of being separated from family, friends and familiar surroundings. Some are angry at the government and blame it for the catastrophe that displaced them. They ask, “Why weren’t the levees strong enough to keep the water away.” They are still in a state of disbelief that floods .. not the hurricane.. could overtake their communities causing such death and destruction. They become more distraught to hear reports that bodies are still being found and that money was only recently approved by congress to provide for DNA tests to identify them.
Most of them were not homeowners, and had no renter’s insurance. Therefore there is no way to replace their losses. Many do not want handouts, but came to Lansing with little or no money or personal belongings. Though they are not homeowners, many have family and friends who owned or were purchasing their own homes. They were appalled to find that the maximum amount that FEMA will pay to homeowners is $26,000.
Jobs are also needed. Many of the evacuees have been looking for employment at various levels. One person, for example, is a master carpenter. Another is a C.N.A. and is looking for a nurse’s aide position at a hospital, nursing home or home care. Several evacuees have entry level skills and simply want to work. Jobs become increasingly important, as Thanksgiving and the Christmas season approaches.
Our intent is to keep the plight of the evacuees in front of the public, because we recognize that their needs will exist for a very long time, even though the media coverage will continue to lessen in time.
Communicating With FEMA
Among the major problems that we encountered at the state level were difficulty communicating with federal agencies, e.g. FEMA, lack of coordination within the state between agencies, a coordination breakdown between state and local entities, inconsistent services to evacuees and a lack of timely information sharing with local emergency managers.
Making phone calls to FEMA was a virtual impossibility. Phones were constantly busy. When there were responses, FEMA representatives often did not have answers to the questions being asked. Two evacuees, f or example, were threatened with ineligibility for assistance because FEMA mixed-up their social security numbers when inputting data. The two lived together, and registered for assistance at the same time. After several phone calls, the mistake was still not resolved and there was a suggestion of an investigation of fraud, because the social security numbers, as input in the FEMA database, did not match the evacuees’ respective names.
Consistent National Procedure for a State’s Response
There does not appear to be a consistent national procedure for a state’s response. Within Michigan, we found that the many of the evacuee’s needs were not thoroughly addressed because of lack of coordination between the local programs and the State Emergency Operations Center. If information had been clearly communicated to the state and then passed between the State and the local programs properly, it would have been much easier to identify and address the evacuee’s individual needs.
There was not a consistent intake process used for all incoming evacuees. At the state level, evacuees were brought to Fort Custer. There they were screened by medical, public health, mental health, social services, etc. In other words, a consistent intake process was used for all incoming evacuees.
At the local level, however, we received evacuees from many different locations and they registered through the Red Cross, the Department of Human Services, St Vincent’s or another agency. Because the State did not coordinate with the local Emergency Operating Centers or one single entity, the same level of services were fragmented at the local level. In addition, Michigan did not make sure that an intake process was established in all counties and cities where evacuees settled. There is still a need to establish a local intake procedure to ensure coordinated, thorough, and evenly provided care.
FEMA policies have sometimes changed in mid stream and caused confusion. The changing policy stance during the first few weeks of the response created confusion among first responders particularly related to what would and would not be reimbursed and what would be provided directly to evacuees.
We believe that FEMA’s policy to give funds directly to evacuees for housing and utilities is a big mistake. Despite written and verbal instructions, approximately 33% of evacuees in Lansing, Michigan spent the funds intended for rent and utilities on other items. This has created the potential for these individuals to again become homeless, this time in a much colder environment. Due to chronic poor choices and the aftermath of stress, it would have served this population well to provide the funds for housing and utilities through a public or private non-profit including faith based organizations. This would have assured non-eviction of evacuees at least for the most critically cold months. We would recommend a process similar to that utilized by the Refugee Resettlement agencies, at least for the first 180 days.
Many evacuees are not literate, creating a need for other communication, sending funds to a public or non-profit agency including faith based would have provided an opportunity for verbal instructions regarding the intended utilization of the funds. In addition, many of the evacuees in Lansing have not handled large sums of money and after being in such dire straits, it may have seemed like a windfall, when other needs were also pressing.
Lansing has at least 20 evacuees who are being threatened with evictions, because they have not paid part or all of their first three months rent. Because they cannot provide a receipt to FEMA, we have been told they will not receive the next rent and utility allotment. Something needs to be done. It will be unconscionable to have these evacuees become a part of Lansing’s homeless population.
The fiasco with debit cards is another example of a poor policy. Changing to direct deposits was also a problem, since many of the evacuees had no bank accounts or, if they did, FEMA did not have bank account numbers.
Another example of a confusing policy is the more recent discussion regarding the $26,000 payment to homeowners. First, $26,000 will not be sufficient to purchase a new home. There are questions regarding existing mortgages and whether mortgage companies will be able to take those funds regardless of the equity in the home. There are also still questions regarding whether or not rent or hotel bill payments will be deducted from the $26,000, and how to protect people from scam artists who may drain the families of this money.
Placement of Evacuees
The greater Lansing Area was prepared to accommodate 500 evacuees. We find it difficult to understand why so many evacuees are still in hotels, even in Detroit, when housing was available elsewhere.
For more information, call 517-646-9077 or Representaive Murphy’s office at 517-373-0826.