TOPICS > Economy

Hotel Crunch Hinders Rebirth of New Orleans

January 13, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN: Sisters Audrey Scott and Beverly Bechet have been living at the Quality Inn on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans for nearly three months.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed the house the sisters once shared in the city’s 9th Ward. Now, they’re sharing a single hotel room.

AUDREY SCOTT: It’s a nice place, but you don’t have the conveniences of home.

BEVERLY BECHET: Yeah, it’s not home, you know, and it’s really comfortable, but it’s not convenient because we have to do a lot of eating out because we don’t have a stove.

TOM BEARDEN: The sisters arrived here after being bounced around to evacuation centers throughout the south. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is picking up the $133 a night tab for their room, and for nearly 26,000 other hotel and motel rooms across the country, at a cost of $1.8 million a day.

AUDREY SCOTT: This is how we eat.

TOM BEARDEN: Scott and Bechet are happy to have a roof over their heads but say they are never quite certain when the government will stop paying their bills and they’ll have to move out.

AUDREY SCOTT: Periodically, we’ll get a note from FEMA saying you have to be out by a certain date, and then we get all panicky about where we’re going to go and what we’re going to do. And then we’ll get another letter saying you’ve got another month, another 14 days. And it’s just back and forth, you know, wishy washy.

PROTESTORS: Stop illegal evictions! Stop illegal evictions!

TOM BEARDEN: Earlier this week, dozens of evacuees protested outside several New Orleans hotels when management started notifying people they had to leave by Jan. 7, the day the hotels thought the federal reimbursement program would end. Some actually evicted several tenants. But a local court issued an injunction preventing hotel owners from forcing any more evacuees to leave.

Yesterday, a federal district court judge ordered FEMA to continue paying for hotel rooms for New Orleans area evacuees until March 1st — Feb. 28th in the rest of the country.

Late this afternoon, FEMA issued a written statement saying the ruling would allow the agency “to serve the needs of disaster victims still in hotels on a case-by-case basis.”

Tony Goodo knows exactly how the evacuees feel. His family went from Mississippi to California and back after the storm, and they’re all sharing one hotel room at the Quality Inn, where he’s the guest services manager.

He says the deadline extension leaves the hotel in a difficult position because they started taking reservations for new guests based on the earlier deadline.

Now they’re double booked. A wedding party is scheduled to come in soon, as are guests who reserved rooms a year in advance.

TONY GOODO: It’s difficult because the deadlines won’t allow businesses to operate in a normal capacity as far as reservations, ticketing groups. We’re getting ready to come in to convention season as well as big events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest.

TOM BEARDEN: The FEMA deadline of March 1st is after Mardi Gras, when everyone hoped the rooms would be full of tourists. In fact, New Orleans has been heavily promoting its legendary Mardi Gras celebrations to jump start the city’s devastated tourism economy.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN: We will be having a Mardi Gras, most of the hotels will be back up and operational, and we’re going to move forward. I think it’s going to send a wonderful signal to the world that New Orleans is on the road to recovery.

TOM BEARDEN: FEMA doesn’t have contracts with the local hotels to house evacuees. Their participation is supposedly voluntary. But when a court says they can’t evict evacuees, they wonder what they’re allowed to do with problem guests.

Evacuee Duke Ducre is a car salesman living in the hotel. He says there have been some isolated but fairly serious problems.

DUKE DUCRE: Fighting, people not taking care of their rooms. I know a couple rooms they had to take all the carpet out of them.

TOM BEARDEN: Why was that?

DUKE DUCRE: Carpets were filthy. There haven’t been a lot of problems here except for a handful of people. But other than that, this is a nice place. Everybody is friendly.

TOM BEARDEN: Both the guests and the hotel owners seem stuck with each other because there is no place else to go. New Orleans and several nearby towns have not given FEMA permits to set up temporary trailer parks because local residents, worried about too many people in too small a space, objected.

Tracie Washington thinks that’s wrong. She’s an attorney for the evacuees.

TRACIE WASHINGTON: FEMA can take that bully pulpit and say we’ve got 30,000 trailers ready to come to this city. You need to tell us where to put them. And I’ve spoken with FEMA representatives; they’ve provided eight, nine, ten sets of plans to city officials and said this is where we can put them. You know, and it’s unacceptable for the mayor and for city council members to say we don’t want them here or we don’t want them there. They have to let these people return to New Orleans and have a place to stay.

TOM BEARDEN: Washington also says many people can’t afford the few rental properties that are available. She says government indecision at all levels is the real problem.

TRACIE WASHINGTON: There’s got to be some leadership where folks come together from state, city, federal governments and gets this going. We have apartment complexes here. Maybe the government can come back online and start helping to refurbish those apartments. For heaven’s sake, we’ve got public housing here. Maybe we can put the public housing back online.

TOM BEARDEN: Yvonne Miles is trying to return to her one-bedroom apartment in a public housing project near downtown. She’s been living at the Quality Inn until she can make it livable again. Her apartment flooded after the storm, and recently the Housing Authority cleaned it out when she wasn’t there. Workers put all of her personal possessions in black plastic bags.

YVONNE MILES: A lot of this stuff I could use.

TOM BEARDEN: She’s now sorting through about 100 bags to see what’s salvageable.

YVONNE MILES: I’ve been working on it since right after Christmas – you know — right after Christmas. But for me, I’ll be 80 years old in four months, you know, so it is hard for me, you know, to get in there. And all my children lost everything, so they are in Texas. So I’m down here down here every — you know, not every day, because transportation is kind of hard.

TOM BEARDEN: Back at the Quality Inn, workers are rushing to repair the storm-damaged roof before Mardi Gras begins. Thirty rooms are still uninhabitable, almost a quarter of their capacity. Other hotels were more severely damaged and will take months to rebuild.