WASHINGTON — Stung by complaints it was pushing hurricane victims out before the holidays, FEMA extended its hotel housing program Tuesday by a month in 10 states where most of the homeless evacuees sought shelter after Katrina and Rita.
More than 46,000 families in those states now have until Jan. 7 to move out of hotels and into travel trailers, mobile homes or apartments until they find permanent homes. The deadline comes much sooner — Dec. 15 — for 3,500 other households scattered nationwide, before the Federal Emergency Management Agency stops paying their hotel bills.
In all, FEMA is paying for 49,826 hotel rooms for hurricane victims at an estimated $3 million a day. The hotel program has cost the agency at least $300 million since Katrina hit Aug. 29, followed by Rita on Sept. 24. At its height, FEMA was housing 85,000 families in hotels.
Last week, FEMA set a Dec. 1 deadline to stop hotel payments everywhere but Louisiana and Mississippi, where housing remains scarce. But that plan drew sharp criticism from Congress, city and state officials and housing advocates who feared 15 days would not be enough time for evacuees to find stable housing and sign leases — a process that can take months in rental markets already nearing capacity.
“We want these families to be back in some semblance of normalcy,” FEMA acting director R. David Paulison told reporters. “We want them in decent housing. We want them out of these hotels and motels and into apartments.”
‘We are not kicking people out’
Still, Paulison said, “Let me make this really clear: We are not kicking people out into the street. We are simply moving them from hotels and motels and into apartments that we will continue to pay for.”
In Las Vegas, The Rev. Jesse Jackson said the FEMA extension did nothing to solve what he called certain eviction of evacuees. Nearly 730 families remain in hotels in Nevada.
“These are artificial deadlines that do not correspond to a house in which to move,” Jackson said.
Under the new guidelines, officials in the 10 states will have to file plans with FEMA by Dec. 15 outlining how they will help evacuees move out of hotels and into travel trailers, mobile homes or apartments until they find permanent homes. Those states are: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas.
Those states “should be able to get these people out by Dec. 15, we believe,” Paulison said. “But we know it’s going to be difficult. ... So that’s why we are giving them through Jan. 7, if they feel like they need that time.”
Louisiana and Mississippi previously faced the Jan. 7 for evacuees living in a combined 13,600 hotel rooms in the two states. But Texas took in the greatest number of evacuees, including 16,100 families who were still living in hotel rooms across the state.
Texas officials welcomed the six-week extension they had pushed for since FEMA announced the Dec. 1 deadline.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, called the new plan “what’s right for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the state of Texas.”
“I will work with our cities to ensure we have a plan in place so we can continue to take care of our neighbors in need,” Hutchison said.
Housing advocates said they were cautiously optimistic about the extension.
“It’s reasonable,” said Barbara A. Vassallo of the National Apartment Association. “We think that’s workable.”
She questioned, however, whether the extension would affect deadlines for other housing programs, and if FEMA was planning to give pending applications for assistance a fast review.
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