A ruling last week from U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon inWashington, D.C., concluded that the Federal Emergency ManagementAgency (FEMA) violated Hurricane Katrina victims' constitutionalrights to due process by failing to provide them with appropriateexplanations before terminating their disaster housing assistance.Additionally, FEMA was ordered to reinstate short-term housingpayments.

The issue of notification began in Feb. 2006 when FEMA attemptedto transfer victims from a short-term rental assistance programimplemented soon after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the GulfCoast region last year. The transfer involved moving victims fromthe short-term program to FEMA's longer-term housing program, whichwould have only provided up to 18 months of housing assistance. Thecommunication letters sent out by FEMA were accused of being"unnecessarily vague" and created a "significant risk of erroneousdeprivations of property interest," according to Judge Leon. Manywho received letters ultimately were denied acceptance into thelong-term program, effectively ending their federal aid.

"It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counselcould not devise a sufficient notice system to spare thesebeleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation tovindicate their constitutional rights," said Judge Leon, in hismemorandum opinion issued on Nov. 29, 2006. He continued by saying,"FEMA's notice provisions are unconstitutionally vague anduninformative, and a more detailed statement of FEMA's reasons fordenying long-term housing benefits, including the factual and/orstatutory basis for the decision, must be provided in order to: (1)diminish the risk of erroneous deprivation; (2) restore theappellate review process to the valuable safeguard it was intendedto be; and (3) free these evacuees from the 'Kafkaesque'application process they had to endure."

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