NEW ORLEANS – Shortly before check-out time, Dwayne McLain rolled the last of his possessions out of the hotel he has called home for four months: some clothes, a football and a laptop computer.
Within days of coming to Georgia in August, the 23-year-old Hurricane Katrina evacuee was fortunate enough to find a car and a job in Atlanta, but he has yet to find permanent housing. His plan is to stay with friends for a couple of weeks while he continues to look for an apartment he can afford in a decent part of the city.
"I know beggars can't be choosers," McLain said Wednesday. "In New Orleans, I lived in a really bad neighborhood, but when you come to a new place, you want somewhere you can be safe."
McLain was among hurricane evacuees in nearly 3,000 hotel rooms nationwide Wednesday who were confronted with a choice they had long dreaded: either remain in their hotel and pay the bill with their own money or other federal assistance, or check out and find a new place to live.
It was the last day FEMA directly paid hotel bills for many evacuees outside Louisiana and Mississippi. Storm victims in about 7,400 hotel rooms in those two hard-hit states have been granted another extension through at least March 15.
FEMA has spent half a billion dollars on hotel rooms in a program that has been extended numerous times since its original deadline last fall. At the program's peak, FEMA was paying for 85,000 rooms at one time, but it has been scaled back in phases over the past month.
Evacuees occupied nearly 22,000 rooms in Georgia when the number peaked on Oct. 20. On Tuesday, the agency still had been paying for 679 hotel rooms occupied by evacuees in the state.
After Wednesday, FEMA will only pay for 125 of those rooms, where the occupants were granted extensions because of special circumstances. In some cases, the evacuees only need a couple more days in their rooms before their able to move into more permanent housing.
"A hotel is looked at as a short-term solution. People have had six months to find long term housing," said FEMA spokeswoman Bettina Hutchings, adding that a lot of people are settling in, but may eventually return to their homes on the Gulf Coast as housing and employment become more available there.
Not all refugees had to turn in their hotel room keys on Wednesday. Those who qualified for individual assistance were free to use that money to stay in their hotel rooms, while FEMA granted some evacuees extensions under special circumstances.
In San Antonio, six families of Hurricane Katrina refugees protested outside their hotel hours before their FEMA-paid rooms were set to expire, complaining that they would have to go to a homeless shelter.
FEMA officials met with them and granted them hotel extensions through at least March 13.
"It's still not enough time to find something," said Yvonne Hayes, who complained her FEMA stipend of $2,000 to last three months isn't enough to rent an apartment in San Antonio.
Hundreds of refugees who have been living on two cruise ships in New Orleans — mostly police and firefighters displaced by the hurricane — had to begin clearing out, while people on a third vessel in St. Bernard Parish sued in an attempt to stay put. The ships are being put back into private service.
McLain, who managed to get a telecommunications job at the Georgia Dome while living at a Country Inn and Suites, said his apartment in New Orleans was "flattened." Still, he is considering moving back.
"A lot of my friends are back down there now working," he said, unloading his shoes and a suitcase from the hotel luggage cart into his car trunk and back seat.
As McLain loaded up his car Wednesday afternoon before heading back to work, hotel manager Jim Zeigler came to say goodbye.
"OK then, Dwayne," Zeigler said, handing the young man an Atlanta Braves baseball cap as a farewell gift. "Come on back sometime. We'll let you park here and you can go to a couple of games."
McLain smiled and shook the man's hand warmly.
"I might do that," he said.