NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The Federal Emergency Management Agency cannot pull housing aid from hurricane victims before they have a chance to appeal, according to a federal judge who also criticized the agency for its ``cavalier'' attitude toward evacuees.
The ruling late Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Helen ``Ginger'' Berrigan comes in a lawsuit filed in April against FEMA. The agency is trying to phase out rental assistance programs for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and move them out of trailers and apartments it has been paying for.
FEMA has been swamped by people in need since 2005, when hundreds of thousands of people in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were displaced by Katrina and Rita's destruction.
Berrigan's ruling means people can continue receiving FEMA assistance until they have a chance to appeal their ineligibility. Currently, aid ceases when FEMA determines someone is not eligible for aid.
In court filings, the agency said the injunction would overwhelm FEMA and keep it from responding promptly to disasters. FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker said the agency is reviewing Berrigan's decision.
``Once the review is complete, FEMA will work with its federal partners on the best course of action,'' Walker said.
Andrew Ames, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment.
The lawsuit was filed by four Katrina victims whose rental assistance was discontinued, but Berrigan's decision will cover about 31,000 households across the nation that rely on FEMA to pay rent.
Berrigan criticized FEMA's procedures, noting that letters announcing a halt in aid are replete with ``incomprehensible hieroglyphic abbreviations.''
The judge also questioned the agency's handling of the housing crisis.
``The plaintiffs have provided a litany of 'horror stories' of individuals who have already suffered grievous loss and trauma, trying to navigate through a bureaucracy that responds, at best, erratically and often in cross purposes with itself,'' she said.
``Instead of confronting these allegations,'' Berrigan wrote, ``the defendants suggest, in a cavalier fashion, that if the plaintiffs do not understand FEMA's codes and procedures, they can appeal.''
To get aid, victims must prove that their former homes are inhabitable and that they do not have the means to pay rent. The rental program has been plagued by fraud, and FEMA has tried to ferret out people who have improperly received assistance.