Bay Area Mayors Blast U.S. Agency Charged With Earthquake Relief
The mayors of San Francisco and Oakland attacked the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Thursday, accusing it of shortchanging homeowners and poor people who remain displaced six months after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck Northern California.
San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos told congressional representatives that FEMA failed to deliver the aid promised by President Bush. Instead, the mayor said, FEMA has attempted to protect “the public treasury against the victims of the disaster.”
Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson lashed out at FEMA’s “arrogance,” telling how the relief agency dispatched only one agent to handle the thousands of people in Oakland left homeless by the Oct. 17 earthquake. The person had no idea how to deal with problems of a disaster in an urban area, Wilson said.
“He didn’t know where he was,” Wilson said at the hearing chaired by Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente).
Don Perata, chairman of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, appeared with the mayors and noted that while citizens may complain about the Internal Revenue Service, the IRS is a “Mary Poppins to FEMA’s Freddy Krueger,” a reference to the character in a series of horror movies.
“If these people worked for me in Alameda County, they would be summarily dismissed,” Perata declared, accusing FEMA of “disrespect and callousness” toward disaster victims.
The two days of congressional hearings, which began Wednesday, were called to review the efforts of agencies in the aftermath of the Oct. 17 earthquake and to determine whether more funding was needed.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), a member of the panel, said she was “discouraged” by the stories of quake victims and the explanations offered by federal officials in response to complaints. She vowed that there would be more hearings in Washington, where the heads of the federal relief agencies would be questioned.
The hearings underscored the problems of dealing with an urban disaster, particularly one in California, which has some of the nation’s highest housing and labor costs.
Homeowners testified about red tape imposed by FEMA and the Small Business Administration, and said grants and loan amounts consistently fell far short of the cost of reconstruction.
Some of the most moving testimony came from Sylvia and Horace Morden, a retired couple whose $450,000 home in San Francisco was rendered uninhabitable by the quake and will cost several hundred thousand dollars to repair.
Sylvia Morden listed numerous contacts with FEMA and the Small Business Administration, and recited details of the complicated forms they have been asked to fill out.
But the Mordens, who have been living in rented quarters, have received no government money. If it weren’t for insurance coverage, she said, “We’d be living on the streets.”
“I don’t know whether to have nightmares or a nervous breakdown,” she said.
Agnos recommended that the panel of the housing and community development subcommittee consider legislation that would allow homeowners to use their equity as collateral for loans to repair damaged houses. This would assist retired people who own their homes but lack income to qualify for loans to repair their homes.
The Bay Area also is home to thousands of poor people who had lived in low-rent residential hotels damaged or destroyed by the quake. As many as 4,000 such people still need replacement housing in San Francisco and Alameda County, officials said.
Officials attacked FEMA’s refusal to help quake victims who could not prove that they had lived in one place for at least 30 days. Low-income occupants of residential hotels generally vacate rooms after less than a month.
FEMA officials insist they have turned down only 100 residents of single-room-occupancy hotels for failure to prove they had lived in the hotels for 30 days.
Legal-aid lawyers who have sued FEMA on behalf of the low-income residents contend that they were denied benefits in form letters that failed to point out they had a right to appeal.
Lorri L. Jean, FEMA deputy regional director in the quake area, defended the agency’s response, and said many residents and officials have “erroneous expectations” that FEMA has the authority to rebuild lost housing.
“If you want us to rebuild lost housing in the aftermath of a disaster,” she said, “then you are going to have to broaden our authority, because we don’t have it now.”
Other federal officials also noted that FEMA has given $26 million in temporary housing assistance to earthquake victims.