Sat, Sep 10, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Hurricane victims faced with debit card chaos

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BATON ROUGE

After a day of confusion and complaints, officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said Thursday that the agency would not expand a trial program to distribute debit cards worth US$2,000 to victims of Hurricane Katrina for immediate living expenses.

A FEMA official in Washington said the cards would be distributed at the Astrodome in Houston beginning yesterday.

Reports that the debit cards would be distributed Thursday morning at the Astrodome, a temporary shelter, brought several hours of confusion to the complex, attracting a crush of cars and pedestrians that caused the police to shut the gates, locking out thousands of residents in the 32-degree heat.

Meanwhile, in Baton Rouge,David Passey, a FEMA spokesman, said he did not know why the program had been discontinued.

But Passey said, "As we've looked at the logistics of expanding the debit card, we believe that our normal methods of delivery, checks and electronic funds transfer, will suffice."

Under questioning by reporters, he said he could not explain why traditional conduits of aid, which take from 10 days to two weeks to reach victims, provided they have addresses or working bank accounts, had been deemed more appropriate than the immediate relief offered by the debit cards.

He said "program specialists" had made the decision.

Announcing the debit card program on Wednesday, Michael Brown, the FEMA director, said it was designed to "empower" evacuees "to make their own decisions about what they need to have to restart their lives." But he did not say when and where the cards would be distributed.

In Baton Rouge, people went to a Red Cross office believing they could get the debit cards there.

Callers to a Baton Rouge radio station from as far away as Atlanta and Houston complained that they did not know how to get the cards. One person said she had called the FEMA office in New York, only to be told that the cards were in Atlanta. But Passey said the cards had been intended for distribution only at the Astrodome, where the highest concentration of evacuees was housed.

After the police lockdown at the complex, the order that characterized the temporary housing situation there so far threatened to collapse, as people fainted, pushed and shoved, and complained loudly.

"It's just a hassle to get assistance," Sparkle Stanwood, 25, an evacuee from downtown New Orleans, said as she stood outside an Astrodome gate, sweat glistening on her face. "They gave us an appointment for 10am today -- now they won't let us in. Some people broke a gate open. It's a lot of people, and it's hot."

Another evacuee, Eric Robertson, said: "We're very angry. We don't really know what's going on. It's so unorganized out here. There's nobody to even answer a question about why the place is on lockdown."

The Red Cross in Houston began handing out debit cards Thursday loaded with US$650 to US$1,600 in purchasing power. The relief organization issued 7,000 cards at the Reliant complex around the Astrodome and will issue more Friday at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Tennessee has distributed 1,550 "electronic benefit cards."

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