WASHINGTON — Federal officials said Tuesday that on Dec. 1 the government would stop paying the hotel bills for as many as 150,000 evacuees from hurricanes Katrina and Rita as they push storm victims to find more stable, and less expensive, housing.
Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency acknowledged that evacuees living in storm-damaged Mississippi and Louisiana might have trouble finding alternative housing. But about the best FEMA could offer was the possibility of two-week extensions of the deadline for residents of those two states.
There is a sufficient supply of apartments elsewhere in the nation to house the evacuees, the officials said. But they were unclear how, or whether, the government might help in finding and paying for accommodations.
"There are still too many people living in hotel rooms, and we want to help them get into longer-term homes before the holidays," FEMA acting director R. David Paulison said in a statement. "Across the country, there are readily available, longer-term housing solutions."
FEMA's action is almost certain to sow consternation among both those displaced by the storms and officials in the areas that have taken them in.
In a memo sent Monday to FEMA officials, David Garratt, the agency's acting director of recovery, said that starting Dec. 1 FEMA would no longer reimburse states for new leases to house storm victims. And on March 1, FEMA will stop paying for existing leases that many states cosigned with evacuees, even though many run for a year or more.
The cutoff would hit especially hard in states with the largest numbers of evacuees, such as Texas and Georgia.
In the memo, Garratt said victims might still be eligible for individual assistance, some of which could be used for rent. But it was unclear whether those now in hotels would be provided with individual aid as part of the effort to move them elsewhere.
In a telephone news conference Tuesday, FEMA officials said only that they would work to notify victims of "all available options.''
Under federal law, FEMA can provide disaster-stricken families with up to $26,200 in aid, and the agency recently announced that it would pay out the full sum to about 60,000 households in the worst-hit areas of Mississippi and Louisiana.
But it has approved only about $4,500 in aid payments to an additional 450,000 displaced families. The second of those payments, part of a three-month apartment assistance program, is set to expire Dec. 23.
In all, FEMA said it had doled out $1.2 billion in transitional housing assistance to more than 500,000 households. Included in that figure was $274 million for hotel rooms.
Garratt said in his memo that, in addition to no longer paying for hotel rooms and ending reimbursements to states for housing storm victims, FEMA also would end aid for "cruise ships, travel trailers
Officials were unable to clarify late Tuesday whether that meant the agency would terminate its controversial contract for cruise ships and would no longer deliver trailers after that date. The only exception to the March 1 deadline is for "state and local employee camps."
Housing for storm victims has been the flashpoint almost from the outset of the disaster, when televised images of thousands of poor and largely black New Orleans residents crowded into the city's Superdome and convention center outraged the nation. President Bush responded with a promise to empty the mass shelters by mid-October. The pledge set off a scramble by emergency officials, who sent the majority of shelter residents to hotels.
FEMA and the Red Cross were never able to settle on a figure for how many evacuees ended up in hotels, with estimates at the height of the move ranging from 200,000 to 600,000.
A similar confusion permeated FEMA efforts to explain its latest policy shift Tuesday. Garratt, whose memo announced the agency's new housing aid plan, said he did not know how many people would be affected, although he could give an exact count of the number of hotel rooms involved -- 53,894.
Garratt offered an indirect gauge of the dimensions of the housing problem in hard-hit Mississippi and Louisiana. He said the two states needed 139,000 trailers and mobile homes to house displaced people, but so far had received 36,300.