Happy Holidays, from FEMA

Wonderful news from FEMA to the tens of thousands of people displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and still living in subsidized motel rooms: The agency will stop paying for most of the 53,000 rooms (all except 12,000 in Louisiana and Mississippi) on December 1. Evacuees, get ready to pay your own motel bill or go find another place to stay.

FEMA delivered the news in a press release on Tuesday that opens with five paragraphs recounting everything the agency has done and all it intends to do for the 150,000 unfortunates still in motels. Not only has it paid out hundreds of millions already just to get roofs over the evacuees’ heads, it wants to do more. R. David Paulison, FEMA’s acting director, is quoted as saying that the agency wants to get people out of hotels and motels and “into longer-term homes before the holidays.”

But FEMA disclosed it has a deeper interest, too: It wants to help people get back in touch with core American values like fending for themselves. “Those affected by these storms should have the opportunity to become self-reliant again and reclaim some normalcy in their lives.”

Only after all that, does the release get to the news: “On December 1, 2005 — the previously announced conclusion for FEMA’s direct payment hotel/motel program — direct federal emergency assistance reimbursements for hotel and motel rooms occupied by evacuees will end. FEMA has an aggressive plan to help place these families in longer-term housing prior to December 1.”

Note that FEMA goes out of its way to say the cutoff shouldn’t be news, because it was “previously announced.” And yes, check the FEMA website and there it is: An October 24 releaseheadlined “FEMA Continues Short-Term Lodging Program for Evacuees.” There, in the third paragraph, is the statement that the motel program would run through December 1. Someone ought to tell these folks what it means to bury the lead.

So, now that it has managed to make its intentions clear, how will the policy work in the real world?

Here’s one sign: In its statement three weeks ago, FEMA said it was paying for about 65,000 motel and hotel rooms. The number is down to 53,000 today, presumably thanks to state and local and volunteer efforts to find longer-term housing for people. That works out to 4,000 rooms cleared a week. Now, the agency wants to clear out 41,000 rooms (the 53,000 total less the 12,000 exempt rooms in Louisiana and Mississippi) in two weeks. Impossible? Perhaps not, despite FEMA’s involvement. Is it likely?

Here’s another sign. FEMA acknowledged a couple days ago that it would be a challenge to even get the word out. The agency had people going around slipping notices under evacuees’ motel-room doors, and it has produced radio public-service announcements to let people know what’s about to happen. If people weren’t even aware of what’s happening in the motel program two days, what’s the chance that FEMA is going to get everyone into the “readily available” longer-term housing (Paulison’s phrase) in the next two weeks?

Here’s one last sign: Look at what’s happening in Texas, where 19,000 motel rooms are occupied by hurricane refugees in Houston alone. The mayor there, Bill White, said given the city’s experience with the issue, FEMA should be seeking its advice: “We have moved more evacuees out of hotels than any other city has ever had in hotels. So we encourage those new to it to ask us, not tell us, how to do it.” Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, said, “My great concern is that there is still no long-term housing plan for the hundreds of thousands of Katrina victims who lost everything.”

What’s going to happen? If FEMA follows through, the problem will be dumped on the states and cities across the country where evacuees wound up. Tens of thousands of people will wind up in shelters again or be put out on the street. More likely, FEMA will take such a horrendous PR pummeling over every aspect of its decision that it will be forced to back off until someone — likely someone outside FEMA — actually figures out a workable plan for getting people into real housing.

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