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FEMA Extends Hotel Program for La., Miss. Evacuees

Hurricane evacuees living in more than 7,400 Louisiana or Mississippi hotel rooms at federal government expense are getting more time to move out.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Thursday it would extend its funding of the hotel program until March 15 in the two states. For evacuees in about 3,000 rooms outside those states, the program will expire March 1, FEMA said.

Housing in Louisiana and Mississippi has been scarce since Hurricane Katrina hit the coast on Aug. 29, followed by Hurricane Rita less than a month later.

Nearly 11,000 mobile homes that had been ordered to house evacuees have been stuck in Hope, Ark. FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said Wednesday that about 400 of those were headed to existing Louisiana mobile home parks. "It seems the state has suddenly found room for a few," she said.

For the evacuees in hotels, the check-out deadline has been an ever-changing target. The program was originally slated to provide rooms only through last fall, but FEMA extended it numerous times — sometimes under court order.

In January, the agency began requiring hotel residents to register with FEMA by phone and obtain an authorization code, which better enabled the agency to track the evacuees. Those who did not obtain the code had their hotel funding cut off Feb. 7.

FEMA acting director David Paulison said the agency expects many will be able to move to other housing before the March 15 date.

The announcement came as U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval opened the latest hearings in a continuing class-action lawsuit against the agency.

Among claims made by attorneys for hurricane victims in the lawsuit are that FEMA is still acting too slowly on some aid applications and is failing to assess individual factors such as family size and the actual costs of housing as it hands out aid. Among the remedies sought is continuation of hotel funding for victims who have yet to receive other housing aid.

FEMA says it has paid more than $562 million for hotel and motel rooms. At one point, the agency said, the program peaked with 85,000 rooms occupied in one night.