Texas Floats Plan to House Ike Victims Aboard Cruise Ship

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An aging cruise ship could become temporary housing for Hurricane Ike refugees if Texas officials can navigate through the federal government's paperwork.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said they had not received a formal request for funds to use the ship and that a state agency's e-mail to a FEMA administrator did not follow protocol for making such a request.

Simon Chabel, a spokesman in FEMA's joint field office in Austin, said the request must go through the state's department of emergency management and be made on a specific form.

"This process exists so we can ensure that the state is speaking with one voice when they asked us for things," Chabel said.

The 1950s-era Regal Empress, with up to 1,200 available beds, left port in Galveston on Thursday and dropped anchor about 10 miles offshore, said Jim Bourke, the ship's agent. A port official said the ship had to leave to make room for others arriving this weekend.

The crew will wait until Monday to find out if the ship's next destination is Port Orange, about 100 miles up the Texas coast, or the Bahamas, where it would resume round-trip cruises to Florida in December, Bourke said.

About 3,000 displaced victims are seeking shelter in southeast Texas where the state would like to put the cruise ship to use, said Michael Gerber, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs executive director.

"We were identifying an option, and I stated the state's interest that we wanted FEMA to explore it," he said. "If there are forms to fill out, I'm sure FEMA will let us know what those forms are."

Gerber sent an e-mail Monday to Harvey Johnson, FEMA's deputy administrator and chief operating officer, about using the ship for temporary housing. He also spoke to Johnson by phone.

His e-mail said the affected area has received only 262 mobile home or park model units for people displaced by Ike, which came ashore near Galveston on Sept. 13.

"Despite being promised 300 units a week, local officials are now desperate to keep their citizens in place and living close to employment," the e-mail said.

Using cruise ships caused FEMA some angst after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The agency was criticized for signing a six-month, $236-million deal with Carnival Cruise Lines for temporary housing on three ships. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, then the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, said at the time that he had documents from 2002 showing that Carnival normally earned revenue of $150 million over six months.

Regal Empress owner James Verrillo told the Houston Chronicle he was offering a daily rate of $48 per person, plus $7 per meal. State officials say the lodging rate is less than FEMA is paying to house storm victims in hotels.

The 611-foot ship was built in 1953 and is due to be taken out of service in 2010.

"We're not talking about a more modern luxury ship," Gerber said. "This is a pragmatic option for folks who really don't have any other choices."

The ship had been docked in Galveston since Sept. 28 and provided temporary housing for about 300 disaster relief workers hired by Belfor USA, a company contracted to clean storm debris from the port, assistant harbormaster Mike Ziesemer said. The last of the workers moved off the ship Saturday, he said.

Gerber said Johnson visited southeast Texas earlier this week to survey the housing situation. He said the cruise ship was only one of the options FEMA is considering.

Gerber acknowledged that cruise ships probably aren't the best option for temporary housing.

"For families, it's hard to say that the ideal solution is to put 1,000 people on a boat for some period of time," he said. "It's cramped space, it's not adequate storage. But absent hotels and motels or multifamily apartments, it's worth taking a good hard look at."