South Texans sue FEMA

November 21, 2008 4:46:56 AM PST
A farmworker rights organization and 14 poor South Texas residents sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Thursday alleging that the agency refused to help thousands of poor families repair their homes after Hurricane Dolly. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Brownsville by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid on behalf of the residents and La Union del Pueblo Entero or LUPE, says that FEMA denied requests for money to cover home repairs to 10,000 to 15,000 residents in the Rio Grande Valley since the July 23 hurricane. It asks the court to force FEMA to release the standards it uses to decide who gets aid for home repairs and make the agency reconsider its denials.

The lawsuit cites cases where poorly constructed or maintained homes were deemed ineligible because the storm damage was blamed on their pre-existing condition.

FEMA spokeswoman Ashley Small said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.

FEMA home inspection guidelines call for a determination of whether the home is "safe, sanitary and functional." If it does not meet that, money can be awarded to raise it to that condition if insurance will not.

The residents suing FEMA, most of whom suffered roof damage, were denied assistance due to what FEMA called "insufficient damage," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit charges that FEMA has not shown clear standards for making its decisions. It quotes an unnamed FEMA official explaining the high rate of denials as saying, "A lot of the homes built were built from second-hand materials. So the damage was, in most cases, caused from the faulty building of the house and not the storm."

FEMA passed over homes of the desperately poor where leaky roofs led to widespread mold and health problems, according to the lawsuit.

In one case, Francisca Adame, 74, has been fighting mold and leaks at her home in Edcouch since Dolly damaged her roof. Mold now grows on her ceiling and walls, the lawsuit said. A FEMA inspector visited her home, but did not go on the roof to inspect it. Four days later, Adame received a letter from FEMA denying assistance for insufficient damage. Adame cannot afford to make the repairs, the lawsuit said.

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