BATON ROUGE, La. - Nearly eight months after it was hired by the state, a consulting company in charge of dispensing billions in federal aid to people whose homes were damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has received 101,000 applications but handed out fewer than 300 grants.

And now the company is getting much of the blame for the overall slow recovery of New Orleans and the rest of the Louisiana Gulf Coast.

Frustrated homeowners are bitterly criticizing Fairfax, Va.-based ICF International Inc., and state lawmakers are demanding Gov. Kathleen Blanco fire the company. But ICF is defending its handling of the aid program, saying it is a task of unprecedented proportions.

ICF was awarded a contract valued at up to $756 million in June to run the Road Home program, a $7.5 billion federally funded, state-administered program to compensate property owners whose houses were damaged or destroyed by the 2005 hurricanes. For ICF, the contract amounts to a potential 10 percent commission.

Homeowners have complained about incorrect paperwork, a labyrinthine bureaucracy, unreturned phone calls, low-ball assessments of their homes' value and the damage done, stingy grant offers, and a slow-moving process overall. ICF has taken final action on only 300 applications.

Reed Kroloff, who is dean of Tulane University's architecture school and has been deeply involved in the post-Katrina planning, said Road Home's problems were among the biggest roadblocks to New Orleans' recovery. He cited the slow pace of ICF payouts, coupled with the program's late start - 10 months after Katrina - and "inexcusable delaying" by government at all levels.

ICF maintains it is ahead of the schedule specified in its contract to run Road Home, a program it helped design before winning the bid. ICF officials also say the program is unparalleled in size and complexity. More than 2,000 people are at work on Road Home, some for ICF, others for subcontractors.

"There's never been a project like it in the United States," said Anita Rechler, an ICF senior executive who is working on Road Home. "The comparables or things that you would have to search are in other countries that are mostly involved in wars."

But by its own admission, the 38-year-old company has never managed a housing contract close to the size of Road Home.

Black Caucus Calls for Katrina Panel

The Congressional Black Caucus has asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to form a committee on Hurricane Katrina to focus more urgently on rebuilding the Gulf Coast, particularly New Orleans.

"The Bush administration has turned its back on our fellow Americans, the victims of the greatest disaster on American soil in our generation," caucus chairwoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D., Mich.) wrote in

a letter to Pelosi. "How can

we talk about reconstruction abroad when we cannot

help our fellow Americans

at home?"

A Pelosi spokesman, Drew Hammill, said yesterday that he had not seen the letter but that the office would

look closely at the request.

In an interview Monday with National Public Radio, President Bush defended the administration's handling of the rebuilding, saying the government had sent $110 billion to Mississippi and Louisiana, some of it

still waiting to be spent.

As of Jan. 18, the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to pay $334 million for New Orleans infrastructure repairs, but Louisiana had forwarded only $145 million to the city. State officials have said city leaders failed to give required documentation.

- Associated PressEndText