Katrina's Angels

Coordinating resources for the survivors of major natural disasters.

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Hotel Housing Program Covers Katrina Evacuees

Date: 9/26/2005

Friday, September 16, 2005 — In the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast, thousands of families fled their homes with only handfuls of their belongings and little, if any, financial resources to sustain them. Some evacuees found refuge in shelters while others took up residence in hotels.

“People initially went to hotels if they had an elderly person or someone with an illness or sickness that could not stay in the shelter,” says Tim Kidwell, director of emergency services for the Greater Houston area chapter of the American Red Cross. But with limited finances, many people were quickly depleting their funds or maxing out their credit cards to stay in these hotels, adds Kidwell, who’s seen first hand the housing crisis facing these evacuees.

So, in an effort to help evacuees keep their hotel rooms once they have run out of personal resources and avoid them having to move to already overcrowded shelters, the American Red Cross has launched a special housing program allowing families from areas heavily hit by Hurricane Katrina to stay in hotel rooms at no cost. The Red Cross will be picking up the tab by paying for the room and any applicable taxes, but not charges like room service or damage.

The Special Transient Accommodations Program started at the request of the State of Louisiana and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) because many of the clients in hotel rooms were running out of funds. The Red Cross works to meet immediate basic needs including housing, food and clothing. So the goal became to keep evacuees in a safe environment, keep their families together, and not have them enter the already overwhelmed shelter system.

“Everybody is happy with the program,” adds Kidwell from the Greater Houston area’s chapter office in Texas, which has a significant number of hotels and motels housing families through the program.

According to Kidwell, an estimated 53,000 people are taking up temporary residence in more than 16,000 hotel and motel rooms in the Greater Houston metropolitan area as part of the Special Transient Accommodations Program. Citing a briefing held by Houston Mayor Bill White earlier today, Kidwell says the majority of rooms are filled, with an additional 500 rooms becoming available. Over 500 hotels and motels are participating in the program so far, he adds.

While much of the work surrounding the transient program has taken place in Texas, it is only one of 46 states offering housing to in-need families. The program was launched quickly, serving more than 54,000 people within the first 48 hours. In the most heavily impacted areas, there simply were no motel rooms available, so most of the work took place in Texas, followed by Arkansas, Oklahoma, northern Alabama and Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida.

With the support of Corporate Lodging Consultants (CLC), a third-party hotel management firm, the Red Cross through the program is reaching out to help individuals who had already relocated to hotels outside of impacted areas. The program is also designed to provide housing to those contacting local Red Cross chapters for assistance, and to allow chapters outside the hardest hit Katrina areas to close small shelters and provide a better environment for evacuees.

With hotel rooms in many cases scarce, those wanting rooms must undergo a verification process to show that their primary residence is in an area battered by Hurricane Katrina. In situations where demand outweighs the space available, decisions for rooms may have to be made on a case-by-case basis by Red Cross staff, who can make reservations for evacuees nationwide where room is available. In the Houston area, for example, evacuees were made aware of the program through notices in local newspapers, shelter newsletters, and publicity within hotels.

Since rolling out earlier this month as part of a multi-pronged effort to offer financial assistance to victims of Katrina, the transient housing program has twice been extended to offer longer lodging stays. The American Red Cross announced Sept. 12 a 14-day extension for evacuees currently using the program. The Red Cross has since reevaluated the program, allowing hotel stays to be extended for an additional 30 days.

“The hotel industry has really stepped forward, with deeply discounted rates,” asserts Michael Brackney, manager of client service program development for the American Red Cross. “When the initial program was extended an additional 14 days, there was a strong level of cooperation.”