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Katrina Evacuee Hotel Program Extended

The deadline for the U.S. federal government for to move Katrina evacuees out of shelters has passed. Some have gone to trailers or temporary housing, but a large number of them are still living in hotels, costing the government, and taxpayers, $4 million a day. In the two months since Hurrucane Katrina hit, the U.S. government has spent about $220 million on hotel rooms for evacuees.

Chris Voss, who works for the Washington D.C. arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been helping evacuees who came to the area get jobs and supplies, says more permanent housing can be a lower priority, "In the immediate aftermaths of a disaster, a lot of times it's like, 'hey let's get (th)em a roof over their head later,' and let's obviously at the same time, while dollars are a factor, we'll try and find a way to reduce the costs to whoever may be paying the bill later," he said.

So, according to the Red Cross, some 200,000 people continue to live in hotels.

The Travelodge motel in Washington, D.C., currently houses 10 evacuees. Carl Shapiro, the manager, says Travelodge wanted to help the evacuees and agreed to give them rooms at 60 percent off the normal rate.

"I'm not saying that we don't look at the money end, but if you look at the rate, we give them a free hot breakfast, two and three to a room...I don't know if you could say that I'm taking the difference to the bank," he said.

For some hotels, evacuees provide a financial lift. For others, they mean lost business: corporate guests would pay more than what the Red Cross, and ultimately the federal government, pays for a room.

Hotel managers also say housing evacuees costs more, including money spent on power, water and free breakfasts.

Maurice Junior, who had lived in New Orleans' Algiers section, now stays in Mr. Shapiro's Travelodge and recently got a job as a cook at a nearby hotel. He says the motel is much better than terrible conditions in a shelter, but still, he would like an apartment of his own. "My own apartment, a house. It doesn’t matter. (As) long as I got a roof over my head," he said.

He's had no contact with friends or family and does not know the condition of his home. He says government officials have been very helpful and that he plans to stay and live in Washington D.C.

He says he’s starting over, "What am I going to go back to? I'd rather start over. Get away from your past. You're in another state, completely changed. Changed your environment so you might as well change yourself."

FEMA's Chris Voss says he thinks others continue to stay in hotels because they are waiting to move back home, a process that has been slowed by the enormity of the disaster. "When you lose an entire city, you've also lost the economy of an entire city, and because there are not jobs that these people can immediately move back to, and because the immediate areas just couldn't support that overflow, setting up those trailers or having people back in the immediate area is not going to suffice either," he said.

To move people into affordable housing, the government has set up a rental assistance program of $786 a month. Some evacuees say that is not nearly enough to pay rent in the more expensive cities, and in some states, the waiting list for affordable is long. They government has spent $1 billion on trailers for the evacuees, but the conditions in trailer parks are notoriously bad, according to some evacuees from previous disasters.

FEMA has pledged to cover the cost of hotel rooms through Oct. 24. After that, it's not clear what will happen since most evacuees are a long way from being able to rebuild their homes in the Gulf Coast Region.