FEMA: month's reprieve to hurricane evacuees still in hotels

Stung by complaints it was pushing hurricane victims out before the holiday season, the government's emergency agency extended its hotel housing program by a month in 10 states where most of the homeless evacuees sought shelter from Katrina and Rita's destruction.

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 (Ђ2.6 million) a day. The hotel program has cost the agency at least $300 million (Ђ256.4 million) since Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico coastline on 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 Tuesday. "We want them in decent housing. We want them out of these hotels and motels and into apartments."

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. The states are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas.

Louisiana and Mississippi previously faced a Jan. 7 deadline for evacuees living in a combined 13,600 hotel rooms. Texas took in the greatest number of evacuees, including 16,100 families who were still living in hotel rooms across the state, AP reports. P.T.

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