FEMA to cover hotel costs for some Gustav evacuees

Published 10:45 pm Saturday, September 6, 2008

Victims of Hurricane Gustav who can’t return to their homes over the next month because of storm damage or power outages can have their hotel costs covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, officials said Thursday.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday that some evacuees’ hotel bills would be paid by FEMA, but it had been unclear whether that applied to those who fled for a few days, spent a few nights in a hotel and then returned home.

Officials held a telephone news conference to clarify who was eligible for the funding: Only those whose homes were rendered “uninhabitable” by the storm will have extended-stay hotel costs covered for a period that began Wednesday and ends Oct. 3.

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“If an inspector goes out to their home during that period of time and determines that their home is in fact habitable, then we can terminate assistance for them prior to that 30-day period,” Deputy Assistant Administrator David Garratt said.

Having no power qualifies a home as being uninhabitable, but as soon as the power comes back on, eligibility for aid ends, he said. Broken windows also could make a home uninhabitable but the aid would end once they are repaired. Aid would also cover homes in areas authorities have kept off limits because of lack of power or safety concerns.

It was unclear how much the program would cost or how many of the estimated 2 million people who fled the storm would be covered. Residents began returning to the stricken area as early as Tuesday, the day after the storm.

Steady streams of inbound traffic were reported Wednesday and Thursday despite remaining widespread power outages in many areas and warnings that some areas lacked medical care, gasoline ice and groceries.

Garratt said the hotel funding plan was a pilot program that will be fine-tuned and evaluated in case it is needed as other storms — such as Tropical Storm Hanna and Hurricane Ike — threaten the U.S. Coast.

He stressed that individuals seeking aid would have to register with FEMA by phone or online and that their identification and dwelling addresses would have to be verified. He said the program was “an outgrowth of one of the lessons we learned from Hurricane Katrina” in 2005.

“At the front end of Hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross put an awful lot of folks in shelters at our request, but there was no identity verification capability at that time. As a result, we had a lot of folks in shelters who were legitimate evacuees as well as a lot of shelter residents who were not,” Garratt said.

Garratt did not address whether gasoline costs or other costs of evacuating might be covered by FEMA aid.

A Georgia Emergency Management Agency spokesman said Thursday that the agency had received a handful of calls in recent days from evacuees asking for gas money to return home. The state is referring those people to FEMA and the Red Cross.

Some evacuees also wondered whether FEMA would cover their lost wages and other expenses after they returned to New Orleans. The FEMA Web site says there are programs available to aid those who temporarily lose their jobs because of the storm.

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