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$11 Million a Day Spent on Hotels for Storm Relief
By ERIC LIPTON, The New York Times
WASHINGTON (Oct. 12) - Straining to meet President Bush's mid-October deadline to clear out shelters, the federal government has moved hundreds of thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina into hotel rooms at a cost of about $11 million a night, a strategy local officials and some members of Congress criticize as incoherent and wasteful.
The number of people in hotels has grown by 60 percent in the past two weeks as some shelters closed, reaching nearly 600,000 as of Tuesday. Even so, relief officials say they cannot meet the deadline, as more than 22,000 people were still in shelters in 14 states on Wednesday.
The reliance on hotels has been necessary, housing advocates say, because the Federal Emergency and Management Agency has had problems installing mobile homes and travel trailers for evacuees and has been slow to place victims in apartments that real estate executives say are available throughout the southeast.
Hotel costs are expected to grow to as much as $425 million by Oct. 24, a large expense never anticipated by the FEMA, which is footing the bill. While the agency cannot say how that number will affect overall spending for storm relief, critics point out that hotel rooms, at an average cost of $59 a night, are significantly more expensive than apartments and are not suitable for months-long stays.
Officials in cities from Dallas to Atlanta, which are accommodating thousands of evacuees, give credit for getting 90 percent of the victims out of shelters. But they say they are frustrated by FEMA's record in helping place people in more adequate housing.
"Deplorable. Disappointing. Outrageous. That is how I feel about it," said the Atlanta mayor, Shirley Franklin, a Democrat, in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "The federal response has just been unacceptable. It is like talking to a brick wall."
By the Numbers
Evacuee at a Texas hotel Sept. 24
Hurricane evacuees staying in hotels as of Tuesday
Average daily cost per hotel room, which is significantly more expensive than an apartment and less suitable for a long-term stay
Estimated hotel costs by Oct. 24 for FEMA, which the agency did not anticipate
Even conservative housing experts have criticized the Bush administration's handling of the temporary housing response.
"I am baffled," said Ronald D. Utt, a former senior official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Reagan administration aide who is now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative research organization. "This is not incompetence. This is willful. That is the only way I can explain it."
Nicol Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman, said the federal government was moving as quickly as it could to find temporary housing. But the scale of the catastrophe has made it difficult, she said.
"Clearly we have never encountered the size and scope of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina," she said. "Housing half a million people is a challenge by any standard."
The American Red Cross started the hotel program days after Hurricane Katrina struck, when it became clear that the shelters it had opened were not adequate to deal with the 600,000 to 700,000 families displaced by the storm, a spokeswoman, Carrie Martin, said.
The hotel program was intended to last a couple of weeks but has twice been extended by FEMA. Now Red Cross officials are saying there is no end to the initiative, which pays for 192,424 rooms in 9,606 hotels across the United States, in a range of cities as diverse as Casper, Wyo., and Anchorage, Alaska.
Congress last month appropriated a $62.3 billion for the relief effort, most of it designated for FEMA. The agency had told Congress that it expected to spend more than $2 billion to buy up to 300,000 travel trailers and mobile homes to house displaced residents. The agency also planned to give out $23.2 billion in assistance to victims for emergency needs and for temporary housing and housing repairs.
But the temporary housing program has been troubled since the start, observers say. Instead of setting up as many as 30,000 trailers and mobile homes every two weeks, as of Tuesday, just 7,308 were occupied. Even counting berths on the four ships that FEMA has leased and rooms on military bases and elsewhere, the agency has provided only 10,940 occupied housing units for victims in the three Gulf states.
· 22,000 Katrina Evacuees Still in Shelters
· Trailers Stack Up at FEMA Sites
FEMA, reacting to criticism that it might create super-concentrated slums, has scaled back plans to build so-called FEMAvilles with up to 25,000 trailers.
Even a less ambitious plan - complexes with 200 or so units - has been slow to unfold. FEMA officials cite the reluctance by some rural parishes or landowners to welcome evacuees.
But landowners and some state officials in Louisiana blame bureaucratic fumbles by FEMA. Bill Bacqué, co-owner of a trailer park in Lafayette, La., said he offered property for 45 trailers within days of the storm. Negotiations with FEMA were still under way this week, he said. "Things do not move fast," Mr. Bacqué said.
Late last month, FEMA began handing out $2,358 for three months so that families in shelters or hotels could rent apartments.
To date, more than 415,000 households have been approved for that aid, totaling $979 million. But FEMA officials cannot say how many families have used the money for apartments, or simply spent it on expenses while also living in a government-financed hotel room.
David Degruy, his wife, Debra, and their six children, of New Orleans, have done just that while staying in two rooms paid for by FEMA at the Greenway Inn and Suites in Houston.
"We're trying to save the money so that when do get in a house we'll be able to buy things," Mr. Degruy said. "We eat out sometimes, we buy clothes, personal hygiene things."
Some officials criticize FEMA for a passive approach in dealing with cities and hurricane evacuees.
Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, who sits on a House panel that helps oversee the housing effort, complained that it was unreasonable for the federal government to expect that a family led by jobless parents, with no car, little savings and little familiarity with a new city could independently find an apartment.
"The administration's policy is incoherent and socially seriously flawed," he said in an interview.
Real estate officials say that although there are few available apartments in Louisiana, there are many vacancies in apartment buildings across the South, including perhaps 300,000 in Texas alone.
"What are these guys doing?" Jim Arbury, an official with the National Multi Housing Council, a group of building owners and managers, said of FEMA. "All of this housing is available now."
Some housing experts say the Bush administration should follow the approach taken after the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles, when displaced residents were given prepaid housing vouchers instead of having to negotiate and pay a lease on their own.
"We are wasting money hand over fist because we did not deploy the right policy tools," said Bruce Katz, a vice president at the Brookings Institution, a liberal research group in Washington. "We could have thousands, if not tens of thousands of families, in stable permanent housing right now. And we would not have to turn to these costly measures, like hotels, motels and cruise ships."
Ms. Andrews, the FEMA spokeswoman, defended the housing policy. "The program is designed to give those who it affects the most the control over their own lives," she said.
Some cities, including Houston and San Antonio, have taken an active role in helping families find housing by creating their own voucher program, identifying vacant units, paying for six-month leases and then turning over the unit to the evacuees. FEMA has promised to reimburse the cities for the housing costs.
"You can't just give people a check and say, 'Good luck, we will see you,' " said San Antonio's assistant city manager, Christopher J. Brady. "It would not be a sufficient solution."
FEMA officials said other cities can set up similar programs. But Mayor Franklin of Atlanta and Mayor Laura Miller of Dallas have said they cannot do so without being paid in advance by the federal government.
Expressing frustration that she could not offer more help to the 39,000 displaced people who have come to Georgia, Mayor Franklin said FEMA's expectations that her city could advance housing money were unrealistic.
"Our government is not large enough to do that," she said. "We can't absorb the costs."