Joann Tate's haven here is a rather ordinary hotel room made homey with her collection of fluffy pink and white stuffed kittens and bunnies, her Living Way Bible and a stack of inspirational booklets from a local church.
Tate is a Hurricane Katrina evacuee who swam out of her flooded New Orleans neighborhood, was airlifted to central Texas and lived in a huge shelter for weeks. She moved in with shelter acquaintances who rented an apartment, but was asked to leave a week later. With nowhere to turn, she slept on the streets for several days. Then two weeks ago, Tate checked into a government-subsidized room at a downtown La Quinta Inn. Now she could be homeless again.
"If they throw me out of here, they throw me away," said Tate, 49, who is unable to work because of physical disabilities and survived in New Orleans by living with an extended network of family and friends. "We don't know nobody here. It's sad to have us come here and do that to us."
Tate is one of 150,000 Katrina evacuees living in 5,700 hotels throughout the country and who, under a Federal Emergency Management Agency decision announced this week, must find other housing by Dec. 1 -- or pay for their housing out of pocket. The hotel program for Gulf Coast storm victims has cost FEMA $273 million so far.
Many families that move on to apartments will be eligible for as much as $2,358 for three months' rental assistance from FEMA. Only families living in hotel rooms in Louisiana and Mississippi will be eligible for a reprieve from the Dec. 1 deadline because of the states' devastated housing stocks. At the discretion of the FEMA director in each state, federal officials may seek extensions of hotel aid two weeks at a time until Jan. 7.
For everyone else, the clock to relocate into more permanent housing is ticking. And Texas, where Katrina evacuees occupy an estimated 18,500 hotel rooms, will be hit particularly hard. The highest concentrations of evacuees are living in hotels in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Galveston and Austin.
Katrina evacuee Euclid Taylor, 42, said he would have returned to his apartment in the Algiers section of New Orleans by now if he could get information from his landlord. "I've called, I've faxed and haven't been able to find out anything. He's never returned a call," Taylor said. "I don't want to take the one-way ticket back [offered by FEMA] and walk into nothing."
The La Quinta here, in the shadow of the state Capitol, once had 86 of its 150 rooms occupied by Katrina evacuees. This fall, the University of Texas Longhorns fans who flood Austin for home football games were told to look elsewhere for rooms. Out-of-town music lovers who booked rooms in advance for the huge Austin City Limits festival the weekend of Sept. 22-26 were rebooked at a La Quinta on the outskirts of town so as not to disturb the evacuees.
"I said, 'You guys are here to party. These guys are here to survive,' " the hotel's general manager, Allen Bright, recalled. "It was amazing how understanding they were about this."
For almost two months, evacuees cooked nightly barbecues on a patch of grass behind the hotel, and in October, Bright and other hotel employees threw a big 75th-birthday party for an evacuee. Churches regularly dropped off donated clothes and other items at a table in the hotel lobby, and one hotel employee spent his spare time driving evacuees to job interviews. The continental breakfast offering was larger than usual for the group, which initially showed up hungry, tired and traumatized. Mini-refrigerators and microwave ovens were ordered for any evacuees requesting them.
Slowly, the number of "Katrina rooms," as Bright calls them, has dwindled to 30. Still, Bright is concerned that FEMA's Dec. 1 move-out-or-pay-up deadline will find a certain number of evacuees on his property. "That's going to be a very trying time here, because I guarantee you we're going to have people here then. I pray we don't, but I think we will," he said.
Bright said he has asked La Quinta's corporate headquarters for direction on what to do on Dec. 1, and he was told management is looking into how to respond. "I think the company's position is we're not going to put anybody out on the street," Bright said. "But how we're going to accomplish that, I don't know."
Euclid Taylor, 42, says he would return to New Orleans, but he has not been able to contact his landlord.