February 23, 2006

Some Katrina victims get a little more hotel time

By Jeffrey Jones

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Thousands of Hurricane Katrina
evacuees living in Louisiana and Mississippi hotel rooms under
a government-funded program won a brief extension on Thursday.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency said that as
many as 7,400 people whose homes were wrecked in the battered
Gulf Coast states now have until March 15 to find another place
to live.

The original deadline to move out of the hotels had been
December 1, but it has been steadily pushed back. The latest
deadline had been March 1.

FEMA, which was criticized for its slow response to the
devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina on August 29, said it
had helped 780,000 families with temporary housing assistance,
including 80,000 now living in FEMA-provided trailers.

FEMA said it had spent $562 million on hotel rooms.

Nearly 170,000 homes in Louisiana alone were destroyed and
1,300 people killed by Hurricane Katrina, which caused massive
flooding in New Orleans, and Hurricane Rita that followed a
month later, according to U.S. government estimates.

"The process of recovery is difficult and we continue to
provide rental assistance, apartment locater services and
housing referrals to help evacuees take the next step in
securing longer-term housing," said acting FEMA director David
Paulison in a statement.

About 3,000 evacuees housed in hotel rooms in states other
than Louisiana and Mississippi must still move out by March 1,
the agency said. Also on that day, which follows on the heels
of the first Mardi Gras following Katrina, emergency shelters
on huge cruise ships moored on the Mississippi River are slated
to close.

But some evacuees living in hotels said it was hard not
knowing where their next home will be.

"Most of my family was scattered around and I was the only
one who came back. I came back to try to find housing and go
back to work. But I can't get a job if I'm not going to have
nowhere to live," evacuee Gregory Gibson said at a small rally
outside a New Orleans Federal Court in support of a legal
challenge to FEMA's deadlines.

The long-term risk for poor people whose homes were blown
down or flooded is that housing costs will be crippling once
subsidies run out, said Leo Stegman, who works with an advocacy
group called Common Ground.

"It's easy to see what's going to happen," said Stegman.
"Prices are going to go up, some people aren't going to be able
to pay, and what you're basically telling people is to leave
New Orleans."