9/15/08 The Associated Press – La. DSS Secretary Resigns Over Gustav Response
September 15, 2008
La. DSS secretary resigns over Gustav response
by Melinda Deslatte, The Associated Press
BATON ROUGE — Louisiana’s social services chief resigned Monday amid heavy criticism from Gov. Bobby Jindal about her department’s response to Hurricane Gustav.
Ann Williamson stepped down immediately upon submitting her resignation letter to Jindal.
“Thank you for the opportunity to serve this State of Louisiana and its citizens within your administration. I believe in this state and in the honor of public service. My leadership in state government and with the Department of Social Services has been a privilege,” Williamson wrote in her short resignation letter.
It didn’t mention Gustav or any reason for her departure. In a statement, Jindal thanked Williamson for her service and announced the appointment of an interim secretary.
Williamson resigned days after Jindal promised he would make “significant changes” at DSS, a statement that led to speculation that Williamson could be fired. She didn’t respond to requests for comment Monday.
Jindal publicly rebuked Williamson’s agency because of problems in handing out food stamps and setting up shelters for Labor Day’s Gustav. DSS was the only state agency he has criticized since the storm.
“There were several examples where I don’t think the department’s response was adequate,” the governor said late last week.
Williamson, a Jindal appointee who also worked as secretary under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, took responsibility for the problems but also said the department performed nobly in its response to Gustav and the follow-up blow of Hurricane Ike. She said the problems were corrected.
“We as a staff stand by our service, and we stand by the manner in which we responded to the task at hand with the resources we had,” Williamson said in a weekend interview with The Associated Press, before she resigned.
Hours-long waits in the heat greeted thousands of people who sought disaster food stamp aid to help feed their families when the program started last week. Many went home empty-handed. Incorrect locations also were provided about application sites.
DSS resolved the food stamp situation within days and has handed out nearly $50 million in aid and taken 194,000 applications.
However, those problems came after previous complaints about ill-equipped shelters in north Louisiana overseen by the social services department. Portable showers arrived three days after shelters opened, and there weren’t enough bathrooms. The contractor who provided the showers said the company received a request from DSS the day Gustav struck.
Jindal said the food stamp and shelter problems were made worse because he was unable to get information from DSS. He said he received conflicting stories from agency officials about what caused the problems.
Williamson has refused to directly respond to Jindal’s comments. But she has pointed to successful programs the agency has run during Gustav and Ike, including a new electronic system that tracked each person who received state evacuation assistance. Three years ago after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, thousands of people couldn’t find relatives who were evacuated by the state but weren’t individually tracked.
The governor’s health and social services policy adviser, Kristy Nichols, will helm the agency until a permanent successor is chosen. Nichols previously worked at the Department of Health and Hospitals from 2002 to 2007.
“I cannot overstate the vital role that the men and women of the Department of Social Services play during times of emergency. I know they have worked tirelessly for many days now, through two hurricanes, to help provide shelter, food and assistance to Louisianians — and even some Texans — affected by these storms,” Jindal said in the statement.
At a news conference on the steps of New Orleans City Hall, about 20 people who stayed in Gustav shelters cheered when they heard news of Williamson’s resignation.
“I’m so happy,” said Harriet Humes, 53, who stayed at an overcapacity former Sam’s Club Warehouse in Shreveport. “But you know, whoever they put in her place needs to recognize that conditions won’t change just because she resigned.”
Organized by the New Orleans Worker’s Center for Racial Justice, a group founded in the aftermath of Katrina, the evacuees went on to present a 1,400-name petition to Mayor Ray Nagin, urging him to talk with Jindal about ways to include residents in the planning of government-run evacuation shelters.
“The buck stops with the governor, the buck stops with the mayor,” said Saket Soni, lead organizer with the worker’s center. “A resignation in Baton Rouge is not going to ensure that the evacuation plan does right by people the next time.”