The Federal Emergency Management Agency is citing privacy concerns to restrict 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, reports the Washington Post. FEMA rejected a request by Texas officials for access to its database of the more than 100,000 evacuees who have registered for state aid. 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. FEMA officials prohibited workers at a large shelter from sharing information about evacuees even with family members unless the evacuees had signed release forms.
Jack Heesch, a FEMA spokesman in San Antonio, said it is agency policy not to release “any information on anyone” in order to protect a person’s privacy, a position generally supported by civil liberties groups. He said FEMA is prohibited from releasing information on Katrina’s victims even to prevent “double-dipping” — the abuse of federal aid by victims — or to facilitate family reunification. Federal privacy law is intended to protect people from identity theft and other violations of personal information, but state aid officials say it should be balanced against the scope of Katrina’s impact.