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Wednesday, October 12, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S. privacy law limits access to evacuee data

The Washington Post

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The Federal Emergency Management Agency is restricting the release of information on Hurricane Katrina evacuees, complicating efforts by families to find loved ones and by law-enforcement officials searching for parolees and convicted sex offenders.

Citing federal privacy law, FEMA has rejected a request by Texas officials for access to its database of the more than 100,000 evacuees who have registered for state aid, according to the governor's office. FEMA has also declined requests from five states to cross-check a database of convicted sex offenders and parolees against a list of evacuees requesting federal assistance, law-enforcement officials said.

FEMA officials have started prohibiting workers at a large shelter here from sharing information about evacuees even with family members unless the evacuees have signed release forms.

In many cases, relief workers said, such forms have been lost or never presented in the chaos of the exodus. FEMA authorities made similar restrictions when they took over management of shelters in Beaumont, Texas, last week.

"If we find someone, we've been instructed to tell family members, 'He or she is alive and well in San Antonio,' and that's it," said Rene Gauna, a city employee working at a FEMA-managed shelter here at the old Kelly Air Force Base. "We're no longer allowed to release new addresses or telephone numbers or tell people where their loved ones have moved."

Jack Heesch, a FEMA spokesman in San Antonio, said it is standard agency policy not to release "any information on anyone" to protect a person's privacy, a position generally supported by civil-liberties groups. He said FEMA is prohibited from releasing information on Katrina evacuees to facilitate family reunification or even to prevent "double-dipping" — the abuse of federal aid by victims.

Federal privacy law is intended to protect people from identity theft and from other violations of their personal information, but state aid officials say the regulations should be balanced against the enormity of Katrina.

FEMA is beginning to take over more shelters to lessen the financial burden on states and local communities, prompting concern that it will become even more difficult for families to find loved ones.

Since the hurricane, Web sites with information about evacuees have become common. Private Web sites, such as one managed by the Red Cross, and those of state governments provide a varying degree of information about evacuees. Some include new addresses and telephone numbers.

Arkansas maintains an extensive Web site with detailed information on 29,000 evacuees. No privacy waivers were sought "because the benefits in this case so outweighed the risks," according to Alice Stewart, spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican.

The Red Cross says on its Web site that all the information was obtained through waivers. Privately, several Red Cross officials acknowledged that in the rush to facilitate family reunifications and care for evacuees, many waivers were not signed or were lost.

For law enforcement, the lack of access to FEMA information is also an irritant. Louisiana has provided states with a list of the 1,340 convicted sex offenders and 10,000 parolees who were registered in New Orleans.

In some regions, law-enforcement officials met arriving planeloads of Katrina evacuees and ran criminal background checks on all of them, prompting criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union.

"If a busload of seniors went to Texas to see a Cowboys game, would they do a background check on them? Why are these people any different?" said Christopher Calabrese, a lawyer at ACLU headquarters in New York.

Local prosecutors have requested that FEMA cross-check its database with one that includes convicted sex offenders and parolees but have been rebuffed.

With a database of approximately 30,000 evacuees in San Antonio, FEMA by far has the most accurate knowledge of who is in his region, said Cliff Herberg, first assistant district attorney in Bexar County, Texas.

"We are not proposing background checks on everyone. We just want known parolees and sex offenders, and FEMA won't do it."

Herberg said law enforcement can be exempted from the privacy act when it demonstrates a need. "This is not a fishing expedition," he said. "We are putting these people in homes and shelters across the nation. We have the Louisiana lists. We've got to know who they are."

In other developments:

New Orleans: The Army Corps of Engineers said yesterday that it has finished pumping out the New Orleans metropolitan area, which was flooded by Hurricane Katrina six weeks ago and then swamped again by Hurricane Rita.

Presidential visit: President Bush yesterday visited an elementary school in Pass Christian, Miss., and a Habitat for Humanity construction site in Covington, La.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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