WASHINGTON - The federal government's relief agency said Friday it will discontinue its program to distribute debit cards worth up to $2,000 to hurricane victims, two days after hastily announcing the novel plan to provide quick relief.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it will scrap the program once officials finish distributing cards this weekend at shelters in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, where many of the evacuees were moved. No cards will be issued to victims in other states.
Hurricane victims at other locations will have to apply for expedited aid through the agency's traditional route - filling out information on FEMA's Web site to receive direct bank deposits, FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule said.
"We tried it as an innovative way to get aid to evacuee populations in Texas. We decided it would be more expeditious with direct deposits," she said, citing the large staffing operation that would be required to replicate the Texas operation in other states.
Under fire for its initial response to the hurricane, FEMA Director Michael Brown had announced the debit card program as a way to quickly get up to $2,000 to the neediest families and empower them "to make their own decisions about what do they need to have to start rebuilding their lives."
He did not describe the program as applying only to Texas, which has accepted the largest number of evacuees and is the home state of President Bush, though Rule said that always was the plan.
The program called for debit cards to be issued to one member of each household and was aimed at people who did not have bank accounts or addresses to receive checks. The cards could be used at any ATM within 24 hours of issuance, faster than traditional FEMA aid, which can take several days or longer to process.
Word spread quickly among the thousands of refugees in the Houston Astrodome following announcement of the program Wednesday. FEMA workers, however, were unaware of the announcement and had no cards to offer.
On Thursday, the Red Cross began distributing its own debit cards at the Astrodome. The Red Cross assigned appointment times to the refugees, but many people started lining up anyway and waited for hours. Many fainted in the heat, and police had to be brought in for crowd control.
Around Houston, poor people who heard that the government was giving out money tried to get into the Astrodome complex for cards, prompting officials to lock the gates. By Thursday evening, electronic freeway signs in Houston were flashing, "There are no debit cards at the Astrodome."
On Friday, distribution of the FEMA cards began at the Astrodome and proceeded in orderly fashion. Ed Conley, a FEMA spokesman in Houston, said evacuees were receiving the cards at a rate of about 500 an hour.
A FEMA spokeswoman had said Friday there were enough cards to cover the families of the estimated 7,000 people registered at three shelters in the Astrodome complex.
Hurricane victims can still receive expedited aid by applying through FEMA's Web site or calling 1-800-621-FEMA. Checks will be mailed to an address or deposited directly in a bank account, a means that may not be readily available for uprooted and less affluent survivors without bank accounts.