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.
In contrast to this week's confusing and sometimes chaotic effort by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to issue $2,000 debit cards to evacuees, the Red Cross hotel program seems to be working smoothly, with virtually no paperwork for evacuees and a simplified billing process for hotel managers.
"I have never seen anything with the government that is this simple," Thackston said.
Guests who have documents showing they are residents of the affected Zip codes merely have to request that the hotel send their unpaid room bills to the Red Cross. They fill out no paperwork. The hotel then sends a request for payment to a company that has been hired by the Red Cross to manage the program.
At the Jackson Marriott, the largest hotel in Jackson, general manager Tom Schweitzer said that only six of the guests in his 303-room hotel have so far asked for help.
At the Holiday Inn Select in Baton Rouge, La., a city that has doubled in size with evacuees, a manager said that many guests already have their hotel costs covered by insurance and have not applied for Red Cross help. "We are finding that if people have insurance or their own resources, they are not using the Red Cross," said the manager, who declined to be identified by name.
For evacuees who have been struggling in the past week to get any kind of help from the federal government, the relative ease of getting the Red Cross to pay for hotel room charges is striking.
"I called the Red Cross and told them I may not be able to vacate my room before the 14 days run out, and they told me it would probably be extended," said Julie Burkhamer, 42, whose home in Mandeville, La., on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, was damaged in the storm.
She and her husband and their two cats and a dog are staying in a $100-a-night room at the La Quinta hotel in Lafayette. Their two weeks will run out on Monday.
"Now, FEMA, that's a different story," Burkhamer said. "They haven't done jack squat. I contacted them by phone, and they said they would be back to me in two weeks. There is no one around here to see from FEMA. To get the Red Cross hotel coverage, I didn't have to do anything."