Skip to main content

Meeting the Basic Needs of Hurricane Katrina Victims

The following are preliminary recommendations for legislation to help meet the basic human needs of the families that have been displaced or otherwise harshly affected by Hurricane Katrina. The proposals discussed here relate to mechanisms for providing assistance to individuals and families so they can meet their basic needs, such as food, clothing, and housing. This memo does not include recommendations in other areas — such as infrastructure needs or environmental clean-up.

These proposals have been developed over the past week. In the last couple of days, the Administration has begun to release information about a large program of individual assistance to be delivered through FEMA.

As described so far, the scale of the FEMA initiative seems promising. At the same time, however, details concerning it remain sketchy, and in the last day, questions have been raised about FEMA’s capacity to deliver this assistance in a safe, efficient, and equitable manner. (Press reports suggest that the disbursement of debit cards has been delayed as another delivery mechanism is put in place. In addition, at least one jurisdiction that has taken evacuees has not yet been provided information about how or when hurricane victims there will receive this aid.) We very much hope that FEMA will quickly be able to distribute this aid to victims, some of whom are in strange towns with only a few dollars in their pocket. Even if this happens, however, it is very unclear whether FEMA has any plans in place to provide ongoing assistance beyond the next month or two.

The needs of hundreds of thousands of people will likely endure for a much longer period than that. FEMA has never administered a program of this nature for such a large number of people who are spread over such a large geographic area and who are likely to remain displaced for such a long period of time. Whether FEMA is up to such a task for a period beyond the initial weeks is unclear. For this reason, our proposals are largely structured around amending existing programs and delivering aid through state and local agencies that have an established infrastructure and already provide widespread aid in locations around the country.

As details emerge about the FEMA approach, some of the recommendations discussed below may need to be modified. We will undertake to make any such modifications in an expeditious fashion.

* * *

Our nation has rarely experienced a disaster of this scale — the government has never had to grapple with so many people forced to leave their homes for such a long period of time, and scattered so far and wide across the country. It will be essential for the federal government to tap into the safety net already in place in every state — to provide housing, health care, basic income, and food — by providing the federal resources and, where necessary, administrative flexibility so that these basic services can be provided to disaster victims no matter where they are temporarily located.

Below is a summary of our recommendations. These recommendations are designed to provide necessary assistance for the months ahead, with authority in some cases for the assistance to last throughout fiscal year 2006 if that proves necessary. In other words, these recommendations are designed not just with the next 30 days or so in mind, but for the months beyond that as well.