WASHINGTON -- In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's destruction on the Gulf Coast, federal and state agencies began making funds available to victims last week in the form of emergency electronic benefits transfer (EBT) food cards worth $50 or more, as well as generic debit cards loaded with $2,000.
For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture here authorized states to create emergency electronic food benefit cards valued at $50 and distribute the cards to hurricane victims.
USDA Secretary Mike Johanns authorized states to pre-load the cards to "enable displaced residents to immediately purchase food even before their application has been processed to receive complete benefits," according to a USDA statement.
Retailers in most states process magnetic-stripe electronic food benefit cards issued to qualified individuals. States recognize each other's cards, so displaced residents of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama who already receive benefits can continue to use existing cards in other states. The emergency cards will draw from the same databases that authorize the standard food benefit cards.
Thus, if a food retailer in Texas processes an EBT card issued by Louisiana, the Louisiana Department of Social Services, which maintains the benefit, "would be alerted via the EBT [electronic benefits transfer] gateway automatically," said Mike Godfrey, vice president, government services, Stored Value Systems, a provider of card-based programs based in Louisville, Ky.
USDA said states "are being notified" of the authorization to issue the emergency cards, and are being "urged to take advantage of it."
In Texas, which has sheltered over 200,000 hurricane victims, more than 60,000 people have received emergency food stamp benefits so far, Jennifer Harris, spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Service Commission, told SN last week. The benefits, approximately $150 per person per month, are distributed via Lone Star magnetic stripe cards. (Families can have multiple people represented on one card.)
Individuals can apply for the cards at Texas field offices, though last week the state received approval to "use an expedited application in the large shelters [such as the Houston Astrodome] to bring it right to them," she said. "We make clear to Louisiana evacuees that if they still have Louisiana food stamp [cards] they can use them here as well."
Harris added that identification standards for receiving the cards were relaxed for hurricane victims, with alternatives like pay stubs accepted.
In Louisiana and Mississippi, through Sept. 17 EBT card holders who are without the cards will be able to access food benefits by entering their PIN and card number at the POS terminal, according to the Food Marketing Institute's Web site, www.fmi.org.
Additional information on state "disaster rules" and other procedures pertaining to EBT benefits for hurricane victims can be found on FMI's Web site. The Web site also describes rules pertaining to WIC (Women, Infants and Children) benefits.
FEMA DEBIT CARDS
Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, last week announced it will hand out PIN-based debit cards worth $2,000 each to thousands of hurricane victims sheltered in the Houston Astrodome.
FEMA said that it will help register people for the program, with assistance from the banking community, "to deliver the debit card on site." The cards, activated within 24 hours, can be used at any ATM or retail location accepting bank cards with the MasterCard logo.
FEMA said the debit card program may also be offered in other large shelters where hurricane evacuees are located. Hurricane victims can also register for emergency assistance at www.fema.gov or by calling 800-621-FEMA, with funds then made available via electronic transfer to their bank accounts or via check sent by mail.
National Retail Federation here is working with the Department of Homeland Security to "make retailers aware of the debit cards," said Joseph J. LaRocca, NRF's vice president, loss prevention.
LaRocca pointed out that at the Web site of the Southwest Emergency Response Network (www.swern.gov) retailers could access the National Emergency Resource Registry. Companies that wish to donate food or other items to response agencies can list them on NERR.