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FEMA Continues Phase-Out Of Katrina Victims... Housing

By Shaila Dewan
THE NEW YORK TIMES


NEW ORLEANS

Thousands of New Orleans residents became transients Monday — wheeling their entire lives onto the street on luggage carts, or dragging bulging garbage bags through hotel lobbies, some for the dozenth time since Hurricane Katrina hit.

For 12,000 families across the country, including what federal officials say are 4,400 in New Orleans, it was the last day the Federal Emergency Management Agency would pay for their hotel rooms, the largest single step in its phase-out of emergency housing assistance for Katrina victims.

Many of those people were clustered in New Orleans, where they had returned to rebuild, enroll their children in school or, like Dominique Handy, 22, get a job.

Handy, a waitress, stood on the street outside the Royal St. Charles Hotel on Monday, her belongings in the trunk of a friend’s car, her baby daughter, Amyrie, balanced on her hip. Amyrie had recently been crying, but Handy’s face was wearily blank. She had $1,800 dollars from FEMA, which was supposed to pay for three months rent - an impossibility in a city so strapped for housing that officials could not even find a place to serve as an emergency shelter.

“Rent out here, it’s like $1,800 a month itself,” said Handy, 22.

The phase-out of hotel rooms is the end of a massive aid program that cost more than half a billion dollars and at its peak housed 85,000 families on a single night. FEMA, which is ending the program over the strenuous protests of Louisiana officials, says it is time for families to find a more permanent situation.

Of the 12,000 people whose benefit ended Monday, 10,500 have received rental assistance or a trailer, said Libby Turner, head of the Hurricane Katrina/Rita Transitional Housing Unit at FEMA. (Federal officials acknowledged Monday that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of mobile homes may never be used to house hurricane victims.)

But none of the two dozen or so evacuees interviewed in New Orleans over the past two days had a permanent place to go.

Even on FEMA’s own housing Web site, the pickings were slim — only five two-bedroom apartments in the New Orleans area met FEMA’s budget of less than $800 a month. Several that were listed had been rented long ago, according to the landlords, or would not be ready for weeks.

Mark Smith, the spokesman for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said 15 families had already checked in to an emergency shelter in Shreveport, a seven-hour drive from New Orleans, and more than 100 people were on their way there.

Houston, Atlanta and other cities with large evacuee populations passed the deadline with little incident, but in New Orleans several hotels called private security squads armed with rifles after employees were threatened.
Still, most people left peaceably, though many people lingered until noon, when a federal judge, asked by housing activists to continue the hotel program, declined to do so. The judge, Stanwood Duval, had extended the hotel program once before when FEMA announced it would end on Jan. 7.