WASHINGTON -- A federal judge said yesterday that the Bush administration's handling of a Hurricane Katrina housing program was "a legal disaster," and ordered officials to explain a computer system that can neither precisely count evacuees nor provide reasons why they had been denied aid.
US District Judge Richard J. Leon, who ruled last month that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had violated evacuees' constitutional rights by eliminating their housing payments without notice, admonished the government for not moving quickly enough to restart the program for 3,600 and 5,500 storm victims.
"Let me make this clear," Leon told government attorney Michael Sitcov. "Tell FEMA that I'm expecting them to get going on this. Like immediately."
Leon ruled that FEMA had mishandled the transition from a short-term housing program to a longer-term program this spring and summer. Instead of explaining why funding was being cut, FEMA provided only computer-generated and sometimes conflicting program codes, Leon said.
The judge ordered FEMA to explain those decisions so thousands of evacuees can understand the reasoning and decide whether to appeal.
"I'm not looking for a doctoral dissertation," Leon said. "I'm looking for a couple of paragraphs in plain English."
Sitcov said that FEMA's computer system cannot do what the judge wants. The 8-year-old system is set up only to produce program codes, he said. The program also cannot say for certain how many evacuees in Texas were covered by Leon's order, or how many people appealed the denial of their aid, Sitcov said.
"It's not as adept at doing these kinds of machinations," said Sitcov, who said the best estimate of evacuees covered by the order was 5,479.
Leon appeared bewildered and ordered FEMA officials to testify Monday about the program. He said he did not understand why the letters could not be written by hand. He said 10 employees, working overtime and on weekends could translate program codes into 5,000 understandable letters in two weeks -- nearly the amount of time that has passed since his ruling.
"This is a legal disaster. People's rights are being denied," Leon said. "I don't want us to get so mired in the minutiae and the law while, in the meantime, people who need help are not getting help."
FEMA has appealed Leon's order and is hoping a higher court will block its enforcement until the appeal is adjudicated. That ruling is unlikely before next week, and Leon said he wants the agency to start working on the problem immediately.
"Two weeks have been lost and I don't want another day to be lost," Leon said. "We've got to get moving."
Sitcov said FEMA could not comply with the order to restart the housing program because the agreements to reimburse Texas cities for rental payments have expired. Leon said he is sure local governments would be willing to make those agreements again and said he might order Texas officials to testify Monday.
Leon also scheduled a telephone conference tomorrow between FEMA and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of hurricane victims.