- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — FEMA’s ever-changing checkout date for hurricane evacuees staying in hotels at federal expense is providing headaches for hoteliers and uncertainty for storm victims.

Attorneys for evacuees were heartened by the decision of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to extend the hotel program beyond Feb. 7, but had to scramble to keep some evacuees from being put on the street anyway by overbooked hotels.

Yesterday, attorney Tracie Washington said she had negotiated an agreement with one hotel group to stave off evictions until at least Friday. Two days earlier, a judge’s emergency order kept one of the hotels from evicting FEMA-funded occupants of 100 rooms.

The problem: Hotel managers, who had been told the hurricane program would end this past Saturday, had begun accepting tourist reservations to make up for the lost FEMA business. Each time the deadline is extended, a hotel crunch results.

“That’s the kind of juggling act we’re in,” said Bill Langkopp, director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association.

A federal judge’s order in December extended the hotel program until Feb. 7. Now, under increasing pressure from attorneys and advocates for the displaced, FEMA announced it will keep the program operating until at least Feb. 13 for evacuees who register with the agency and obtain a special authorization code.

Evacuees gathered outside the Cotton Exchange hotel in downtown New Orleans yesterday morning, saying they were being evicted so the hotel could make room for other guests.

But Miss Washington said she had worked out an agreement with hotel chain owner Frank Quinn, who agreed not to let any FEMA evacuees be put out of his hotels until Friday at the earliest.

In Washington yesterday, FEMA acting Director R. David Paulison said the agency cannot prevent hotels from evicting evacuees but pledged to help find other rooms for people who are forced out.

An estimated 25,000 families remain in hotels — down from a peak of 85,000 — at an estimated cost so far of $400 million, Mr. Paulison said.

The new authorization program should help FEMA locate families staying at no charge in hotels who so far have failed to register or apply for aid. Officials said they think an isolated number of families are avoiding FEMA because they do not qualify for the assistance.

Of the 25,697 families still in hotel rooms as of Sunday, more than half were in Louisiana and Texas, FEMA data show.

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