NEW ORLEANS – A federal judge ruled Monday that a program that is putting tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees up in hotels must be extended until Feb. 7 — a month beyond the cutoff date set by FEMA.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval said victims must be given more time in hotels because FEMA cannot guarantee that all applications for other aid, such as rent assistance or trailers, will be processed by the agency's Jan. 7 deadline.
The temporary restraining order was part of a class-action lawsuit filed in November by advocates for hurricane victims.
Attorneys pressing the lawsuit had argued that sticking to a January deadline would mean homelessness for thousands of evacuees.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency continues to pick up the tab for about 41,000 hotel rooms in 47 states and the District of Columbia at an estimated cost so far of about $350 million. In addition, the agency has provided rental assistance to more than 500,000 families who lost their homes to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said.
The agency "will review the judge's decision and continue to reach out to help those evacuated get the help they need as they get back on their feet," she said.
The agency had set a Dec. 1 deadline for ending the hotel program but extended it to Dec. 15 after widespread criticism. In addition, 10 states — Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas — were allowed to apply for extensions that effectively stretched the deadline to Jan. 7 for most evacuees.
Duval ruled that those who have not yet received FEMA aid to rent an apartment or move into a trailer can stay in their government-paid hotel rooms until two weeks after their application is approved or denied. But he said everyone will have to be out by Feb. 7 at the latest, unless FEMA decides to extend the deadline again.
Duval noted that even those who have FEMA rent money in hand are finding it difficult to find housing in some areas.
"FEMA cannot assure the court that it will process all or most of the applications of the persons living in hotels and-or motels by Jan. 7, 2006," Duval wrote. "The court is convinced that many persons in the putative class will be irreparably harmed by FEMA's admitted inability to process the pending applications."
A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, which defended FEMA in the lawsuit, said no decision had been made on whether to appeal.
Lawyers for evacuees said victims often got conflicting information about when they would have to leave. At a hearing Friday, one hotel occupant, Lenora Brantley, said she received a letter dated Dec. 2 telling her she could stay in her hotel room until Jan. 7. Later she got a Dec. 5-dated letter telling her she would have to leave by Dec. 15.
"It is unimaginable what anxiety and misery these erratic and bizarre vacillations by FEMA have caused these victims, all of whom, for at least one point in time, had the very real fear of being without shelter for Christmas," Duval said.
Duval's ruling dealt only with Hurricane Katrina victims who applied for FEMA aid, not victims of Hurricane Rita. But attorney Howard Godnick, one of the lawyers who brought the lawsuit, said the decision sets a precedent that Rita victims could use to fight eviction from a hotel, if necessary.
The plaintiffs did not get everything they sought. Duval refused to order that FEMA act immediately on more than 84,000 aid applications still listed as "pending." He said federal law is unclear on when FEMA must act on such applications.
In Baton Rouge, Gov. Kathleen Blanco released an order Monday that postpones the Feb. 4 New Orleans mayoral election indefinitely.
Secretary of State Al Ater, the state's top elections official, had recommended the postponement, saying the city is incapable of holding primaries in February because of widespread damage to polling sites and voting machines.
The order, which was signed Friday, did not set a new date for the elections, saying only that they should be held "as soon as practicable." The postponement affects races for mayor, sheriff and city council seats, as well as runoffs in those races that had been set for March 4.
Also Monday, Mississippi Secretary of State Eric Clark said in a news release that his state needs $7.4 million in federal money to buy voting machines and rebuild polling places destroyed by Katrina.