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Friday, September 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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FEMA says it will end debit card plan

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The federal government's relief agency said today 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.

FEMA's decision capped two days of confusion in which evacuees expressed frustration with the program, which was announced by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in a conference call Wednesday with governors of states with evacuees.

The program was initially introduced this week at the Astrodome in Houston, but it was immediately beset with confusion and questions as to who would be eligible.

Some governors and lawmakers raised concerns about the risk of abuse by people falsely claiming to be hurt by the disaster without the full documentation.

"The question is, How do you separate the needy from those who just want a $2,000 handout," said Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, a Republican.

On Thursday, confusion arose at the Astrodome in Houston following reports that the first FEMA cards would be distributed that day. Red Cross cards were distributed, but those seeking the government cards were told they would have to return Friday and provide documentation such as a Social Security number and the address of the damaged property.

On Friday, Ed Conley, a FEMA spokesman in Houston, said evacuees were receiving the cards at a rate of about 500 an hour, many of whom had filled out the proper documentation and applications through FEMA's Web site.

Applicants were being asked to provide Social Security numbers as well as the address of their damaged homes, for verification against aerial photographs of devastated areas.

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.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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