Private Relief

Red Cross Paying Hotel Bills for Thousands

Horrace Hoges was fortunate to get a hotel room before Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
Horrace Hoges was fortunate to get a hotel room before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. (By Denis Paquin -- Associated Press)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 10, 2005

LAFAYETTE, La., Sept. 9 -- In a massive, costly and little-noticed effort to calm a housing catastrophe that reaches from Florida to Texas, the American Red Cross has quietly created a program that it says is now picking up hotel bills for at least 57,000 people who fled Hurricane Katrina. Room charges are being paid out of the $503 million that the Red Cross has collected so far for hurricane relief.

The program began early this week, when several thousand hotels and motels in and around the Gulf Coast area were notified by the Red Cross that registered guests who can show that they lived in 256 storm-affected Zip codes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama would be eligible to have their unpaid room charges covered by the Red Cross.

The program does not require guests to prove financial need, although it does ask hotel managers to "please be judicious as you participate with us in this program."

Though the free lodging is available to anyone who had fled Katrina, including the more than 180,000 people who the federal government says are in shelters, most of those who have taken advantage of the program are "those who had the resources and transportation to evacuate themselves," said Stacey Grissom, a spokeswoman in Washington for the Red Cross.

The fax that went to the hotels said 14 days would be covered, but the Red Cross said Friday that the two-week limit will probably not be enforced because tens of thousands of people in hotels and motels are unlikely to have other housing options for weeks or perhaps months.

"It is not going to be 14 days, and they are not going to be kicked out of the hotels," said Grissom. "Our priority is to make sure these people have a shelter over their heads."

She said the "analytical details" about how long it will last and how much it will cost will be worked out in the coming weeks as the Red Cross gets a better handle on managing the largest single disaster in the organization's 125-year history.

The hotel program appears to guarantee that Gulf Coast hotels, which are jammed with evacuees from Pensacola, Fla., to Jackson, Miss., to Lake Charles, La., will remain full for the indefinite future.

"For our area, it is very good hotel business," said James Thackston, general manager of the Hilton Lafayette, the largest hotel in this city. With a pre-hurricane population of 110,000, Lafayette has absorbed about 40,000 evacuees. Most of them are in relatives' homes or in hotels.

Harold Mitchell is hard pressed to think of anything good that has happened since Hurricane Katrina chased him out of New Orleans -- except that the Red Cross is picking up the $100-a-night tab for his hotel here and he did not have to do a lick of paperwork.

"It's about the best thing I can think of," said Mitchell, 65, a teacher's aide in New Orleans who is sharing a double room at the Lafayette Holiday Inn with three members of his family.

Covering hotel costs is something the Red Cross routinely does after house fires, Grissom said. But the scale of Hurricane Katrina, which Gulf states' officials have said may have displaced as many as 1.3 million people, has expanded the size and cost of the hotel program to an unprecedented level, she said.


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