- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Hurricane Katrina evacuees across the nation who faced a deadline this Saturday for checking out of their government-funded hotel rooms have received a reprieve: Federal officials will keep paying for the rooms beyond that date as they iron out issues arising from a class-action lawsuit.

One issue: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which inherited the program from the American Red Cross, still does not have up-to-date records on the identities of evacuees in the hotel program or where they are staying, according to court papers filed last week by government attorneys.

Under a federal judge’s ruling last month, FEMA is required to keep the hotel program running until Feb. 7. However, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval said FEMA could stop paying for hotel rooms beginning Saturday for evacuees who have been approved or disapproved for other FEMA housing aid, such as a trailer or rental assistance.

Now, the Jan. 7 date no longer holds, according to a flier being distributed to hotels in the program. It says: “The program will continue for all evacuees in all states until further notice pending the resolution of certain issues now in litigation.”

FEMA’s decision to continue the program for everyone beyond Saturday stems from confusion about the judge’s Dec. 12 order, which was issued in a class-action lawsuit filed in November on behalf of thousands of Katrina evacuees.

Government attorneys said in court filings last week that Judge Duval’s order is not clear as to whether it covers evacuees who have not applied for FEMA assistance, and whether FEMA can require evacuees who are staying in the hotels to identify themselves by registering.

As government attorneys sought a clarification from the judge, attorneys for evacuees expressed concern that amid the uncertainty, some people who are entitled to stay in the hotel program might be evicted.

“If you can’t be certain who’s in the hotel, it’s indicative of the fact that you may be evicting some of our clients,” said Danny Greenberg, one of the attorneys pressing the lawsuit.

FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews yesterday said: “We’ve always said we’re not going to put anyone on the street.”

Miss Andrews stressed that FEMA does not intend to stop funding for any evacuee whose eligibility for further assistance had not been determined.

The Red Cross began the hotel program in September. FEMA funded the program from its inception and took over its operation from the Red Cross in October.

As of mid-December, FEMA was footing the bill for an estimated 41,000 rooms, and the program had cost the agency $350 million.

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