Shelters largely cleared

Sunday, October 16, 2005

GONZALES, La. -- Lisa Austin couldn't hide her excitement Saturday as she pushed a shopping cart full of luggage out of the cavernous convention hall where she had lived for nearly seven weeks.

The broken windows and soaked carpets in her house in New Orleans had been repaired and she was heading home.

"I've never missed my home as much as I miss it right now," she said.

Watching her leave the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, Ray Schiavo was as frustrated as Austin was happy.

He said he had been waiting weeks to get into a rental house in Metairie, but miscommunication and red tape with the Federal Emergency Management Agency had left him stuck without the check he needs to get back on his feet.

"I've got a job waiting for me. I've got a house waiting for me. But I'm still here," Schiavo said.

FEMA largely succeeded in moving some 270,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees out of shelters by Saturday, a self-imposed deadline, estimating that 95 percent had gone on to other housing options. But plenty of challenges still remained -- including hurricane victims' continuing frustration with the federal government and a whopping hotel bill that could hit $425 million by Oct. 24.

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.

Despite progress, there still are families like Dolores Meinke's, stuck in shelters they are trying to leave.

The 73-year-old's home was nearly destroyed by floodwaters in New Orleans. She and her family have been trying to arrange to put a trailer on property her nephew owns in the Pearl River area.

Before they can do that, though, they have to travel to the property and get a notarized letter granting them permission to put the trailer there.

They have the means to get there, she said, but her grandchildren are in school near the shelter and arranging the trip has been difficult.

Meinke, who spends time cooking for the Red Cross volunteers staffing the shelter, confides that she rather likes life at the Expo Center, despite the lack of privacy. But her 12-year-old grandson doesn't. "He wants to get back to his friends and his school," she said.

Shelter manager Missy Stehr-Wood said there were about 740 evacuees at the 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 -- or how much longer the shelter would be running.

Vice. Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commander in charge of FEMA's response to Katrina, said last week that nobody would be forced out of any shelter because of the Saturday deadline and that federal staff would work with the remaining evacuees to help them find more permanent housing.

FEMA ascribes the slow pace to difficulties in land acquisition, gaining permits and to disruptions caused by Hurricane Rita.

Katrina displaced an estimated 1.5 million people when it struck Aug. 29. Shelter population peaked at about 273,000 in the days after the storm, according to FEMA.

Mark Smith, spokesman for Louisiana's Office of Emergency Preparedness, said the pace of moving people out of shelters was frustrating. "It is a monumental effort that FEMA has undertaken and we understand that that effort is going to take time, but we had hoped it would come about quicker than it has," he said.

Michael Logan is one of the dwindling few. He finds himself still in the Cajundome in Lafayette, trying to qualify for a FEMA camper trailer he could 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," Logan said. "I told them just set it up, I'll do all the other work."

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