FEMA Ordered to Extend Hotel Stays

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A federal judge in New Orleans yesterday ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to continue paying the hotel bills of thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees until as late as Feb. 7, criticizing the government for inaction 15 weeks after the storm.

U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval ordered the disaster response agency to pay for storm victims' rooms for at least two weeks once a decision is made on granting them rental housing assistance or until Feb. 7, whichever comes first. The agency had planned to stop subsidizing hotel rooms for evacuees on Jan. 7, in an effort to push them into longer-term housing, which it says is better for them and less costly to the government.

Duval's order applies to thousands of the estimated 85,000 evacuee households whose housing aid applications FEMA has not yet processed. He also called on FEMA to publicize its reversal of strict rules that denied aid to thousands of other evacuees, describing FEMA housing policy shifts as "eccentric and bizarre."

In a 27-page order, Duval issued a stern rebuke to FEMA and the Bush administration for responding sluggishly to a catastrophe that has killed more than 1,200 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of people from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

"Unfortunately it seems as if inaction has been the leit motif of the response to the most severe natural disaster in the nation's history," Duval wrote.

Acknowledging "the immensity of the problems," he wrote: "It is this court's feeling that the initial paralysis stage has passed and all government agencies -- local, state and federal -- should be operating in full tilt to assist the hundreds of thousands of citizens displaced by no fault of their own."

Duval's order came in the early stages of a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of Katrina victims who have failed to get or been denied housing aid.

FEMA's office of public affairs released a statement yesterday saying that officials are reviewing the decision, which can be appealed, and adding that FEMA has provided rental aid so far to more than 500,000 families.

"The needs of the relative few who remain in hotels and motels are a top priority. FEMA continues to reach out to those evacuees who may not yet know of federal aid they are eligible to receive," the statement said.

Howard Godnick, a private lawyer who, along with several civil rights and public interest law groups, is representing 25 plaintiffs, praised the decision.

"This ruling means that tens of thousands of adults and children who faced homelessness this holiday season will instead find that there is room at the inn," he said.

FEMA is paying for about 42,000 hotel rooms in 47 states and the District in a program that has cost about $350 million so far. The agency last month announced a Dec. 1 deadline for ending the hotel program and moving evacuees into a rental assistance program, but extended it to Dec. 15 after widespread criticism of the short notice given to victims and state and local governments.

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