Two years later, FEMA's Sept. 11 field office winds down

Sunday, June 29, 2003

WASHINGTON -- An office in a nondescript Manhattan building became a focal point for anxious New Yorkers after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Residents lined up to seek help paying bills, find temporary housing, arrange to have their apartments cleaned.

Next month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's field office will shutter its storefront operation after dealing with close to 200,000 applicants.

Its legacy is mixed. In the nearly two years since the agency's Sept. 11 relief efforts began, FEMA gave out a record amount of money yet came under public criticism as tens of thousands of applicants were turned away or deterred by bureaucracy.

Overseeing $8.8 billion in programs, FEMA ended up rewriting rules and extending deadlines after the 2001 attacks. It also drafted an air-cleaning program's requirements so loosely that virtually everyone in New York City became eligible for a free air conditioner.

There were simple mistakes; for example, failing to pay for a post office box, which meant that some aid applications were returned to residents.

The agency insists it responded quickly to problems and adapted when necessary.

"I think the changes that came happened remarkably fast," said Brad Gair, who oversaw FEMA's Sept. 11 relief efforts.

Gair said more than $6.4 billion will have been paid out after the $2.5 billion public assistance portion of the budget closes out Monday. The last of the $8.8 billion should be out of FEMA's hands by the two-year anniversary of the attacks, including among other things $1 million in insurance for Ground Zero cleanup operations.

Critics contend the agency's office is closing too soon after moving too slowly at first and not casting its net wide enough to meet all needs.

"FEMA can't justify closing its doors without first helping all of those who were wrongly rejected, misled or discouraged from applying," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. Her district includes part of Chinatown, among areas hardest hit by the economic aftermath of the attacks. Many residents there felt their plight was overlooked.

Maloney complains that more than 10,700 of 27,400 applications for mortgage and rental assistance and more than 114,000 of 228,000 applications for grants were withdrawn or rejected.

FEMA officials say those eligibility rates are comparable to previous disaster programs, with one key difference: the size of the project.

Some applicants say any obstacles should not overshadow the agency's willingness to adapt.

Dan Slippen, who worked in the World Trade Center and lived in nearby Battery Park City, found himself without a home and dependent on FEMA for help.

"To be honest, I had a great experience," said Slippen, who estimated he received between $9,000 and $10,000 in rent and food aid.

Slippen's work experience was different. Hired in February 2002 as an administrator at Pace University in lower Manhattan, Slippen was told that schools such as Pace were ineligible for aid because they were a nonprofit entity that did not perform a government function.

"I went back to FEMA and made a little bit of a stink," said Slippen. "We sat down, and ever since it's been nothing but a great relationship."

Pace is now receiving installments toward what will eventually be more than $4 million in FEMA aid.

For Gair, most shortcomings stemmed from the fact that FEMA, created to respond to natural disasters, never envisioned the complicated economic shock waves that would follow the attacks.

"For a time, the whole nation went into a disaster," said Gair, leaving the agency to sort out "who was a disaster victim versus who was feeling the same crunch that the whole country was feeling."

One of the biggest changes FEMA made was to expand its geographic limits for applicants. Traditionally, FEMA responds to disasters on a county-by-county basis -- a strategy ill-suited to the city, where commuters come from three states and where each borough constitutes its own county.

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