HOUMA, La. – Lawyers for Hurricane Katrina evacuees still staying in hotels urged a judge Friday to keep the program going beyond next month's deadline, saying federal officials may fail to find replacement housing for people still in desperate need.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency wants to end the program Jan. 7 in the 10 states with the most evacuees, and by Dec. 15 elsewhere.
Evacuees' attorneys want a temporary order extending the hotel program, which has cost $350 million so far and housed 85,000 families at its peak. They say FEMA has failed to provide aid to many who qualify and that information on aid has been slow to reach those who need it most.
Lenora Bartley, who is pregnant, estranged from her husband and has been jobless since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, testified that the hotel room the federal government is providing for her in San Antonio is the only home available for her and her 8-year-old son.
FEMA says people who are properly registered and are eligible for aid will have the assistance they need to move on to other temporary housing. As of mid-week, 41,000 hotel rooms were occupied under the hotel program, FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said Thursday.
Bartley, however, told U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval that she hasn't received any other aid from FEMA and doesn't know when she'll get the $2,000-plus check for apartment rentals promised to those displaced by the storm.
A letter dated Dec. 2 told her she could stay in her hotel room until Jan. 7, she said, but another dated three days later said she would have to leave by Dec. 15.
"We had a life. We had stability," Bartley said. Then, breaking into tears, she added: "My son is looking forward to Christmas, I can't even give him a Christmas."
Under questioning from government attorney Scott Simmons, Bartley said she was fired from her job at a New Orleans nursing home because she could not return to the city. She acknowledged that she had not contacted her employer since then to discuss the possibility of getting the job back.
Government lawyers say the lawsuit should be dismissed under laws that protect government agencies from liability in the performance of their duties.
The judge is expected to rule early next week.
FEMA originally set a Dec. 1 deadline for ending the hotel program, but stung by critics who said that would result in mass evictions, the agency extended the deadline to Dec. 15. Evacuees in 10 states — Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas — could apply for extensions to Jan. 7.