The Catastrophe Is Not Over

By Jennifer Moses
Saturday, January 28, 2006

BATON ROUGE, La. -- While the rest of the country wakes up in the morning to read about the latest round of Washington scandals, the misery in Louisiana continues unabated. Except for a few older, historical neighborhoods on "high ground," New Orleans is uninhabitable, and Cameron Parish, in the southwest corner of the state, basically no longer exists, having been wiped out by Hurricane Rita.

Meanwhile, though Congress passed a $29 billion aid package for the Gulf Coast region, it's being split between Mississippi and Louisiana, perhaps because, even though Mississippi has fewer than one-fifth the number of affected households Louisiana does, its governor, Haley Barbour, an ex-Republican National Committee chairman, is a pal of the president. But with all the problems Louisiana is facing -- including a new round of budget-slashing -- no one seems to be talking about the looming human crisis: Where will the tens of thousands of evacuees living in hotels go when the Federal Emergency Management Agency stops paying the bills in February?

Here in Baton Rouge, housing experts fear a new storm surge -- this one of people with no jobs, no insurance, no one to take them in and, as of next month, no roof over their heads. In the meantime, the local low-income housing market has never been tighter, as both FEMA and HUD have bid up housing and rental prices, leaving longtime working-class residents of Baton Rouge scrambling to find even minimally decent housing. As soon as their leases expire, rents for apartment dwellers, most of whom are on year-to-year leases, are being jacked up. The St. Vincent De Paul Society (among other institutions that serve the poor) is providing more than 25 percent more meals than it was before the storms. And homeless shelters have gone begging for permission to add beds. As for the thousands of families desperate to move out of government-sponsored hotels: tough luck. Because even if you've managed to find yourself a job, the chances of finding affordable housing are next to nil.

Nationally, the number of families dwelling in FEMA-sponsored hotel rooms is just over 25,000, with more than half of those in Louisiana and Texas. FEMA is paying for some 8,600 hotel rooms in Louisiana, most of which are concentrated in the southern swath of the state and are occupied by more than one person. The government, in its demonstration of Oprah-era sensitivity training, is urging these families to relocate -- to go somewhere far, far away, Minnesota, say, which has generous welfare benefits, or Oklahoma, which has lots of open space -- but for some reason, most of the families living in hotels just want to go home.

Of course, it could be worse. FEMA might have stuck to its earlier cutoff date of Jan. 7, as many hoteliers in New Orleans did, booking rooms occupied by homeless evacuees for the Mardi Gras tourist season, resulting in storm victims being evicted just in time for winter to set in. (A federal judge, hoping to prevent this trend, recently ruled that evacuees in New Orleans will be allowed to stay in government-funded hotels until March 1, the day after Mardi Gras.) And let's give FEMA credit where credit is due: The agency has promised -- in writing, no less -- that it's going to help rehabilitate sections of neglected working-class neighborhoods in Baton Rouge to accommodate the newly and about-to-be homeless. The only problem is, so far at least, the contract is worth just about as much as the paper it's written on. On the other hand, FEMA continues to award storm-cleaning contracts to some out-of-state companies that sprang up just a few days after Hurricane Katrina lunged ashore. So at least someone's being helped.

According to Randy Nichols, executive director of Baton Rouge's Alliance for the Homeless, the real hitch is that FEMA is still treating the disaster in Louisiana as a historic, one-time, one-size-fits-all catastrophe, rather than as a long-term problem that requires a long-term fix. One long-term fix -- not just for residential planning but for flood control in general -- is restoring Louisiana's wetlands, which in the olden days acted as a natural buffer to storm surges, and without which none of South Louisiana would have been inhabited in the first place. But no one's talking much about the wetlands, perhaps because the subject is too, well, environmental. (And we know how the Bush administration regards the environment.)

In the meantime, however, the problem of homelessness isn't just local. All the president of the United States has to do to glimpse the horrors of homelessness up close and personal is walk over to St. John's Church on Lafayette Square, where every night a dozen or more homeless men and women congregate for a good night's sleep. Surely there's room in there for a few thousand more.

Jennifer Moses is a writer.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company