NEW ORLEANS — With the peak tourist season of Mardi Gras approaching, hotel managers across this slowly rebounding city are wondering: When will the thousands of hurricane evacuees lodging at taxpayer expense finally check out?
Members of more than 25,000 households forced to flee hurricanes Katrina and Rita last summer remain scattered in hotels and motels around the country, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. So far, the government has spent $400 million covering their bills.
About 15,000 of those displaced occupy 8,700 rooms in Louisiana -- largely in the New Orleans metropolitan region. Their stay past FEMA's original December relocation deadline, which has been extended twice, is testing the hospitality of hotel operators, who are hoping Mardi Gras can attract visitors to the city and revive its moribund tourism economy.
The housing program is set to end Feb. 7 for the majority of evacuees, but in recent days, several New Orleans hotels notified hurricane victims that they would have to leave to make room for traditional customers.
"We're running a business like anybody else, and if we have reservations from months ago, we have to honor them," said Shezad Saleem, general manager of the Royal St. Charles Hotel, which notified dozens of evacuees Tuesday that they would have to check out today to make room for families bringing their children back to Tulane University. "We can't let someone else continue to stay in those rooms," Saleem said.
Evacuee Kevin Laroque, whose apartment was flooded by Katrina, has been staying at the Maison St. Charles Hotel for the last seven weeks. He briefly found himself on the street Saturday, his room card no longer working, before a judge's emergency order allowed him back into the hotel.
"Last week, they sent us a letter saying they needed our room for the coming special events season, so we were being put out," said Laroque, 50. "I was pretty mad, but my wife was furious that they would put us out on the street because they could make more money."
Other evacuees who did not fight their eviction notices wound up wandering the streets of New Orleans with worn mattresses and sacks of clothes and other belongings, wondering where to go next.
Acting FEMA director R. David Paulison said Tuesday that the agency could not order hotels to continue providing rooms to evacuees. "We can't control hotel policy, but what we can do is help those people find another hotel," he said.
The agency announced this week that it expected most of those still in hotels to find more permanent housing by the middle of next month.
Hotel operators say FEMA has left them in a terrible position: They expected the evacuees to be out by now -- based on the agency's earlier timetables -- and now they are double-booked.
Plans call for an abbreviated, eight-day Mardi Gras celebration culminating with Fat Tuesday -- the day before Ash Wednesday -- on Feb. 28. Tourism officials estimated that about 22,000 of the 39,000 hotel rooms in the New Orleans region were back in service, and that as many as 20% of the rooms were occupied by hurricane evacuees.
"I guess the government needs to make a decision: Do they want Mardi Gras, or do they want to provide hotel space for citizens?" said Glenn Scheuermann, chief financial officer of New Orleans Hospitality Cos., which operates the Royal St. Charles and two other boutique hotels in the city. "For us, it's not a matter of trying to keep the FEMA people out. At the rates FEMA is paying us, we would love to keep them here until 2012. But we only have so many rooms."
Lawyers representing the evacuees have been able to stall most of the evictions; they reached a deal this week with Decatur Hotels LLC, a company that manages 1,800 New Orleans hotel rooms, to temporarily keep hurricane victims housed. But the attorneys expect evictions to escalate in coming weeks as the buildup to Mardi Gras brings tourist dollars back into town.
"Every day we're hearing about hotels telling evacuees, 'We have no space, we have people coming in for conferences, you need to move on,' " civil rights attorney Tracie Washington said Tuesday as she stood outside the Royal St. Charles. "While I sympathize with the hotel owners and their dilemma, these hotel owners are not going to be homeless. And when there was no commerce in this city, these hotel owners benefited from this policy -- their rooms were full, for as much as $200 a night."
The eviction disputes underscore the troublesome reality that a sizable number of Katrina evacuees have not begun making a transition to normal life.
FEMA announced Tuesday that it would pay for hotel rooms until Feb. 7 unless displaced residents contacted the agency and obtained a new authorization code. Evacuees with a code would be able to remain in rooms through Feb. 13 -- and possibly longer -- but their situations would be assessed on a case-by-case basis, with rooms awarded to those with medical conditions or other special needs.
A group of lawyers that sued FEMA to extend the deadline is scheduled to return to court today, seeking to ensure that the agency does not put thousands of hurricane victims on the street.
"FEMA is lurching from decision to decision, and seems unable to put together any comprehensive plan" for placing the remaining evacuees in housing, said Rebecca Troth, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington. "Hotels need a final notice, and so do these victims of the hurricane. How can they find jobs and move on with their lives if they don't know where they are going to be living?"