Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

TOP STORY >> FEMA funding ends soon

Leader staff report

“Right now, we’re trying to find a house to rent,” said Wade Morgan, 26, who has hunkered down at the Holiday Inn Express in Lonoke with his 2-year-old son and his son’s mother and said he was looking forward to a fresh start.

The 1,023 families evacuated from hurricanes Katrina and Rita still living in Arkansas hotels — 2,083 people in all — will have to pay living costs out-of-pocket either with Federal Emer-gency Management Agency rental housing aid or from their own funds after an extended Jan. 7 deadline, according Bob Alvey, public affairs officer for the Arkansas FEMA office.

“No one is being kicked out, it’s just the rooms aren’t going to be paid for automatically,” Alvey said.

In the immediate wake of Hurri-cane Katrina, and then Hurricane Rita, the Holiday Inn Express was disaster central for evacuees in the Lonoke area. Now Morgan and his family are the last remaining family seeking refuge.

“We’re probably moving back toward Baton Rouge or to Tulsa,” he said, adding he has filled out paperwork, but has yet to be approved for FEMA help with an apartment or rental house.

Three or four families have settled in Lonoke, according to Mayor Thomas Privett.
Morgan expects to be moved out by the end of December. While the motel room has been a great help, it’s been claustrophobic, he said.
Morgan, an oil refinery construction worker, says the rent home he had in the New Orleans area was ruined.
He has some possessions secure in a mini storage, he said.

“They can pay for the rooms with housing-aid money from FEMA but it is more cost effective to put that money towards rent,” Alvey said.
By Jan. 7, the thousands of evacuees who receive FEMA housing aid in vouchers issued though state or local authorities will have to sign a rental lease to remain eligible for the funding.

According to an Associated Press report, the hotel rooms have cost FEMA $274 million since the storms struck.

Critics say FEMA has not given evacuees enough time to find homes and sign leases — a process that can take months in rental markets already nearing capacity. So far, FEMA says it has provided $1.2 billion in transitional housing assistance to more than 500,000 households displaced by the hurricanes.

Locally, there are 319 families of hurricane evacuees living in hotels in Pulaski County, four families are living in hotels in White County and one evacuee is living in a Lonoke motel. Families will need to apply and qualify by Dec. 1 for the assistance, Alvey said.

“These evacuee numbers are very fluid because these are the people who have returned data sheets to FEMA, it can go up or down as more people apply or people return home,” Alvey said.

In Jacksonville, there are three families still living in hotels.
“Those families are filling out paperwork with the Jacksonville Housing Authority to get into homes,” said Angie Mitchell, a volunteer with the Hurricane Katrina Assistance Center in Jacksonville.

Although the center closed in mid-November, the center still helps evacuees with assistance through the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. Mitchell spent most of this week passing out vouchers for free turkeys from Kroger to the 100 evacuee families who have housing in Jacksonville.

Approximately 15,856 families had applied for FEMA assistance in Arkansas since Katrina hit on Aug. 29, followed by Rita on Sept. 24.
FEMA granted extensions to 9,830 families in hotels in Louisi-ana and 2,508 in hotels in Mississippi, where there is a housing shortage, according to Alvey. Evacuees in those states have until Jan. 7 to find homes. Additionally, the six-month leases for evacuees living on cruise ships will end March 1. FEMA previously had set the December deadline as a goal to have evacuees out of hotels and into travel trailers, mobile homes or apartments until they find permanent homes.

The FEMA deadline for getting out of hotels and into more permanent housing was never an issue in Cabot and Beebe.
Peggy Moss, chairman of Cabot KARE, said that organization worked closely with Alan Turnbo with the Cabot Housing Authority to get families into permanent housing as soon as they arrived.

Currently, 40-45 families call the Cabot area home, she said.

As for Cabot KARE, headquartered in the old Knight’s grocery store, it has closed its doors. Moss said the tentative plan for donations stored there is to sell them in a rummage sale and divide the proceeds among the hurricane victims.
Julie Hill, with Beebe KARES, said the hotel deadline was never an issue in Beebe.
“Our folks went into housing or they went back home,” Hill said.

As for the organization she co-chaired with husband Paul Hill, Beebe’s clerk-treasurer, Hill said it’s not closing its doors. It will stay around in some form to help those in need.

In Sherwood, about 95 percent of Chief Elwin Warhorse Gillum’s St. Tammany Parrish Native American Tribe have moved from the Calvary Missionary Baptist Church to the Park Crest apartments, with the rest living elsewhere, according to Pastor Larry Potts.

The church keeps its laundro-mat open for the Native Americans, and several of them attend services there and are active in the music ministry, he said.