The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday met with southeast Texas officials who say the government has been too slow in setting up housing for thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Ike, and he assured them that FEMA is speeding up its efforts.
"Our top three priorities are housing, housing and housing. We are going to stick with it until we are done," FEMA Administrator David Paulison told reporters after the closed-door meeting.
FEMA has been heavily criticized by local, state and county officials over the pace at which it's getting hurricane victims into housing — particularly mobile homes. Ten of thousands of homes were destroyed or damaged by Ike, which roared ashore near Galveston on Sept. 13 and ranks among the nation's costliest storms.
Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia, one of the officials who met with Paulison, said it has taken seven weeks to get federal approval for an 88-acre site that can accommodate up to 600 mobile homes in his county.
"They've dropped the ball as far as I'm concerned. It's just been too slow," Sylvia said. "There is no reason it should take seven weeks to put the first FEMA trailer in the hardest-hit area in Chambers County. To me, that is unacceptable, and it should be to FEMA also."
Paulison said the agency will streamline the process to make it easier to get mobile homes to Texas communities devastated by Ike.
About 1,000 mobile homes have been sent to Texas, with 600 of them already occupied.
"We have plenty of units. That is not an issue. The problem is finding the spots," Paulison said.
Mobile home sites must meet zoning rules and have the necessary utility hookups before they can be occupied.
"We are opening up more sites. We are being more flexible in where we are going to put up these sites," Paulison said.
Federal regulations had prevented FEMA from putting mobile homes on floodplains. But the agency has waived that rule at the urging of some Texas counties.
Paulison estimated 2,500 to 3,000 mobile homes will be needed in Texas, but some local and county officials say twice that many are needed.
Aside from providing mobile homes, FEMA officials said the agency has given nearly $266 million to homeowners and renters for rental assistance and emergency repairs. FEMA has also spent $60 million to help about 22,000 applicants stay in hotels, including more than 5,000 who remain in such temporary lodging.
The agency referred another 19,000 applicants to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Disaster Housing Assistance Program. HUD uses its public housing authorities to place eligible families and individuals in rental units. The program will be available for 17 months.
In addition, Texas homeowners have received more than $143 million in low-interest disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. The money covers uncompensated losses for physical damage to homes.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, one of several federal lawmakers who requested the meeting, said he believes FEMA is working diligently to fix the housing problem, but wanted Paulison to learn of the situation firsthand.
"It's important he hear the frustration with the excruciatingly slow response to the housing need for the people of this part of the state," Cornyn said.
Sylvia said he felt encouraged by the meeting.
"I feel Paulison will go back and try to correct things," he said.