FEMA chief defends decision to cut off aid to hurricane victims

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday he was disappointed with a federal court ruling that his agency unconstitutionally denied aid to thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year, adding that he has not yet decided whether to resume the payments.

FEMA Director David Paulison told CongressDaily he would not change what FEMA did if he had to do it all over again. "This is one of those things where no good deed goes unpunished," he said of the court ruling.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled Wednesday that FEMA must immediately resume housing payments for thousands of people displaced by the hurricanes last year. Leon found that FEMA did not give victims sufficient notice earlier this year for why they were being denied aid, and did not give them an adequate appeals process.

"I was disappointed with the ruling. I didn't expect it," Paulison said. FEMA lawyers were reviewing the court order and, therefore, no decision has been made on whether to resume payments or appeal the ruling, said Paulison, adding that he did not know yet how many people would be covered by the ruling, or how much it would cost the agency to resume payments.

He said FEMA began making payments last year to any hurricane victim who requested aid -- without investigating whether the applicant actually qualified. "We pushed it to the limit," he said. After a few months, the agency determined that some people did not qualify for continuing aid and started denying them payments. "We housed a lot of people who weren't eligible," Paulison said.

During an appearance at the National Press Club Thursday, Paulison outlined changes that FEMA has made over the last year to improve emergency management capabilities and coordination. He announced a new strategic partnership with the National Emergency Management Agency -- a professional association for state emergency management directors -- and the International Association of Emergency Managers to strengthen coordination between the federal government and state and local authorities.

He also unveiled a new logo for emergency management. "The call for transformation is broad and expectations are high," he said in prepared remarks. "The nation needs a stronger and more capable FEMA. We hear this from the White House, the secretary [of Homeland Security], the Congress, the states, the American people and our teammates."

Congress approved legislation in September aimed at improving FEMA's capabilities. But some key Democrats have said they intend to conduct hearings during the next Congress into fraud, waste and abuse associated with Katrina aid and contracting. Perhaps sensing what might be coming from Capitol Hill, Paulison cautioned against more investigations.

"We must resist the call for additional investigations unless they are based on new evidence or allegations," he said. "Rather than conduct additional studies, inquiries and analyses that look backward to tell us what we already know, we should continue to focus our energy on correcting the problems."

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