WASHINGTON – The federal government's relief agency said Friday it will discontinue its program to distribute debit cards worth up to $2,000 to hurricane victims, two days after hastily announcing the novel plan to provide quick relief.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) said it will scrap the program once officials finish distributing cards this weekend at shelters in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, where many of the evacuees were moved. No cards will be issued to victims in other states.
Hurricane victims at other locations will have to apply for expedited aid through the agency's traditional route — filling out information on FEMA's Web site to receive direct bank deposits, FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule said.
"We tried it as an innovative way to get aid to evacuee populations in Texas. We decided it would be more expeditious with direct deposits," she said, citing the large staffing operation that would be required to replicate the Texas operation in other states.
Under fire for its initial response to the hurricane, FEMA Director Michael Brown (search) had announced the debit card program as a way to quickly get up to $2,000 to the neediest families and empower them "to make their own decisions about what do they need to have to start rebuilding their lives."
He did not describe the program as applying only to Texas, which has accepted the largest number of evacuees and is the home state of President Bush.
From the outset, there was confusion about how to get the cards and who would be eligible.
On Thursday, thousands of people lined up at the Astrodome in Houston following reports that the first FEMA cards would be distributed that day. Red Cross (search) cards were distributed, but those seeking the government cards were told they would have to return the next day.
On Friday, Ed Conley, a FEMA spokesman in Houston, said evacuees were receiving the cards at a rate of about 500 an hour, many of whom had filled out the proper documentation and applications through FEMA's Web site.
Applicants were being asked to provide Social Security numbers as well as the address of their damaged homes, for verification against aerial photographs of devastated areas.
A FEMA spokeswoman had said Friday there were enough cards to cover the families of the estimated 7,000 people registered at three shelters in the Astrodome complex.