City’s Hurricane Evacuees Can Stay On in Hotels for Now (N.Y. Times)

February 14, 2006
City’s Hurricane Evacuees Can Stay On in Hotels for Now

Paula King, a widow who lost everything when Hurricane Katrina hit her Mississippi town, awoke yesterday to the possibility of being evicted from the hotel room in Queens she has lived in since September.

Tens of thousands of evacuees across the country were moving out of their hotel rooms to comply with a deadline set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is no longer paying their hotel bills. Many were facing homelessness.

Then, word came that the Radisson evacuees were getting a reprieve. As a throng of television crews gathered outside for a midday news conference, hotel officials announced that despite the end of federal compensation for evacuees affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the 17 families remaining at the Radisson could stay on indefinitely. The more than 100 evacuees in six other hotels across New York City will also be allowed to stay for now, advocates said.

It was the latest of several eviction scares for local evacuees in the past month. At the Radisson, Mrs. King, 59, sank into her bed, sighed in relief and called the close call another episode of a life lived in limbo.

Mrs. King had fled Biloxi, Miss., as the hurricane headed for the city, leaving behind her new four-bedroom home. Since September, her address has been Room 612 of the Radisson Hotel J. F. K. in Jamaica. She lives out of suitcases and stores her food in cardboard boxes.

“Now this is my bedroom, living room and dining room right here,” she said, starting to cry. “My church is gone, my friends are gone, there’s nothing there. Everything is gone, just devastated. You wonder where the people are.”

At the news conference, held on the first floor of the hotel, evacuees and their advocates criticized FEMA’s decision to stop the hotel payments.

Charlie King, a lawyer and a Democratic candidate for New York State attorney general, said the evacuees in New York City would be protected by city and state housing laws and could not be thrown out without a formal eviction proceeding, which could take months.

Still, he said, given what many evacuees had already endured, “it is just unbelievable that we are in this situation.”

City Councilman Charles Barron criticized a federal judge’s rejection of a last-minute appeal to extend the FEMA deadline, and urged New York’s Congressional leaders to fight the ruling.

Other speakers called FEMA’s decision to end the subsidies another example of the bungling that has characterized the government’s response to Katrina, one of the worst disasters in American history. Brenda Stokely of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund called it “the worst displacement of African-Americans and others since the Civil War.”

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Libby Turner, FEMA’s transitional housing director, defended the decision.

“We looked at the situation and this is what we decided as the best way to go,” she said.

Ms. Turner said FEMA had spent $542 million on hotel accommodations for the hurricane evacuees.

About 88 percent of all evacuees staying in hotels and motels, or about 10,500 families, have moved into longer-term housing with rent-assistance checks from FEMA, she said. Evacuees still living in hotels are eligible for assistance from state, city and charity organizations, she said.

Tony Pinto, the manager of the Radisson in Jamaica, said the hotel had been charging FEMA a $129 nightly rate. “Were not throwing anybody out,” he said. “We’re just following the rules.”

The Rev. Donald Hudson, a Queens pastor helping local evacuees, said that many of the hotel guests who had moved into rental apartments were getting rental assistance from FEMA. But, he added, others have had trouble getting leases because of problems with credit checks, unemployment and skeptical landlords.

Of the 373 families that came to New York City because of the hurricane, 245 have moved into apartments and other types of housing, said Angela Allen, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Homeless Services.

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