Shelters largely cleared but frustrations remain in effort to house Katrina’s displaced
BATON ROUGE, La. – Roughly 95 percent of some 270,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees were cleared from shelters around the nation by Saturday, the federal government’s self-imposed deadline for emptying the refuges.But that relative success comes amid continued frustration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a whopping hotel bill.As of Saturday afternoon, 14,468 people remained in shelters, according to state and federal officials. Louisiana shelters held 9,003 of them and the remainder were spread among 11 other states.”Our count is down to 439,” said Chisholm Pothier, a Red Cross spokesman at the Cajundome arena and convention center in Lafayette. The facility once held more than 7,000 evacuees.Considering that thousands of those still in the shelters are likely refugees from Hurricane Rita, which struck southwestern Louisiana and Texas on Sept. 24, authorities believe they have cleared out more than 95 percent of the Katrina evacuees.Katrina displaced an estimated 1.5 million people when it struck Aug. 29. The shelter population peaked at about 273,000 in the days after the storm, according to FEMA. President Bush set a mid-October goal of emptying the shelters and FEMA officials adopted Oct. 15 as their deadline.Numbers fluctuated at some of the shelters. Missy Stehr-Wood, manager of a center in Gonzales, said there were still about 740 evacuees at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center on Saturday morning. Some were leaving, but others were moving in as the Red Cross consolidated shelters. She wasn’t sure how many would be there at the end of the day.Still, Louisiana officials are unhappy with the pace.”Moving people out of the shelters and into temporary housing has been a source of frustration for us,” said Mark Smith, spokesman for Louisiana’s Office of Emergency Preparedness. “It is a monumental effort that FEMA has undertaken and we understand that effort is going to take time, but we had hoped it would come about quicker than it has.”FEMA ascribes the slow pace to difficulties in land acquisition, gaining permits and to disruptions caused by Hurricane Rita.Meanwhile, a trade association for apartment owners complains that the federal government is spending too much on hotels and isn’t doing enough to let evacuees know about available apartments. An estimated 600,000 of Katrina’s displaced were being lodged in hotels at a cost expected to reach as high as $425 million by Oct. 24.Jeanne Delgado of the National Multi Housing Council said there were an estimated 100,000 units in Dallas and Houston.FEMA said that’s complicated, too, in part by Louisiana officials’ desire to get evacuees closer to home, where there are far fewer housing units available.Those remaining at shelters complain about red tape and lack of information.At the Cajundome, Michael Logan was hoping he could qualify for a camper trailer to put on his damaged coastal property.”I hope – that’s all I can do is hope, because I ain’t going to get no answers – that they can just set me up with a place, a camper trailer. I told them just set it up, I’ll do all the other work,” Logan said.Aside from the president’s deadline, there are other pressures to close shelters. Many are located in convention halls and arenas that would ordinarily be moneymakers for local governments.”There have been multiple events that have been canceled,” said Hampton Grunewald, assistant to Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden. The Red Cross was working to shut down its center in the city’s River Center exhibition hall and move lingering evacuees to another shelter north of town. Grunewald didn’t have an estimate on the costs.Other venues also felt the sting. In Washington, for example, an arena known as the DC Armory provided shelter to 295 evacuees. They had cleared out by Oct. 4 and the Armory was set to begin holding events again Saturday, said D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission spokesman Tony Robinson. An estimate on the Armory’s lost revenue was not available, but Mayor Anthony A. Williams said the city spent about $4 million providing aid to the evacuees.An expo for baby care products and a career fair for University of Louisiana students were among events that had to be canceled at the Cajundome in September. But the diminishing shelter population was consolidated in the convention hall last week, freeing up an arena. Pothier said the Red Cross would move the hall’s residents to another area shelter once the population dwindled to about 200, but he had no target date.