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FEMA expedites aid to homeowners, as states look at share of costs

GULFPORT, Miss.—The Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to start mailing checks to the coast's hardest-hit homeowners in Mississippi and Louisiana, as leaders in those states begin to grapple with the billions of a dollars the states will have to find to pay their share of hurricane aid.

Eugene Brezany, a FEMA spokesman in Jackson, Miss., said FEMA is using satellite imagery of the most devastated areas in Mississippi and Louisiana to expedite aid to more than 50,000 families whose homes were destroyed. FEMA provides a maximum of $26,200 per household for uninsured losses.

As the agency moves forward with payments for individual property owners, it also is looking to the states to pay a percentage of the recovery costs. Many of FEMA's relief programs require a state repayment of up to 25 percent.

FEMA notified Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco last week that the state's share of FEMA aid will be about $3.7 billion, a sizable bill as the state starts a 17-day special legislative session called to deal with post-hurricane issues. Mississippi has not been notified of an amount, according to officials there. But early estimates put the bill at between $1 billion and $2 billion.

"The bottom line is, we don't know yet," said Buddy Bynum, spokesman for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. "It is something of a moving target, and some elements of the formula are still being determined."

But state Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Robertson said state leaders have been told that Louisiana's hurricane losses and expenses are about 1.5 times Mississippi's. Louisiana's budget was about $8 billion. That means Mississippi, which has a budget of $4.6 billion, could easily see a bill of $1 billion to $2 billion for its share of relief.

The agency uses a variety of programs to offer recovery funds.

Cindy Taylor, a FEMA spokeswoman in Washington, said the agency is attempting to target the worst areas along the Louisiana and Mississippi coast quickly. The effort will give homeowners all the money they are eligible for at once instead of piecemeal, she said.

Brezany said FEMA is overlaying ZIP codes on the satellite imagery, and then contacting applicants in those areas to confirm the information. The first area targeted by this stepped-up procedure covers about 50,000 homes in Louisiana and 4,500 in Mississippi.

Based on state officials' estimates in both states, this would cover only about 10 percent of homeowners who faced major uninsured losses. The bulk of these are people who did not have separate flood insurance for damage from Katrina's water.

Taylor said once losses are confirmed, payment would be forthcoming quickly—within days for direct deposit, or about a week by mail. Next FEMA will next target other hard-hit areas with its expedited program, she said.

Meanwhile, a bill introduced in Congress to have the federal government pick up the state's share of Medicaid for one year could help cushion the states, Robertson said.

"Gov. Barbour is trying to get that passed," Robertson said. "That would give us a little over $500 million. If that came through, and some other things, we would be in pretty good shape."

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(Pender reports for The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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