FEMA will help with evacuees' hotel bills

The federal government says it will pay the hotel expenses of some of the nearly 2 million people who fled their homes ahead of Hurricane Gustav, but exactly who will be eligible for assistance and how much it will cost taxpayers was uncertain.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said FEMA would pay hotel costs “to make sure that people don't feel economic pressure to return home prematurely, before it's safe.”

He said FEMA would pay hotels directly, so it was unclear whether those who had already paid for rooms and checked out would be eligible for reimbursement.

With two other hurricanes threatening the East Coast, the decision to pay for hotels could make it easier to evacuate areas during the next disaster. But doing so would also burden the agency with huge expenses.

The news that hotel costs might be reimbursed came too late for people who have been sleeping at public shelters, such as those in a convention center in Birmingham, Ala. Some of those evacuees said they would have preferred a hotel if they had known FEMA money would be available.

“You can just get catnaps here,” said Aaron Clark, 63, as he sat under a shade tree outside the center. “We didn't get breakfast this morning because they said something was broke down. It's just surviving, that's all it is.”

FEMA officials in Louisiana urged residents affected by the storm to register with the agency and to save receipts that document their spending during the evacuation.

“We'd need receipts, and we'd need to know whether the area they were evacuated from is one of the mandatory evacuation areas,” said Ed Conley, a FEMA spokesman.

Some evacuees wondered whether FEMA would cover their lost wages and other expenses after they return to New Orleans.

In the Birmingham shelter, Carlos Pavilus of New Orleans said he would give anything to be in a hotel. “I'm so tired of smelling tennis shoes and diapers. We have no laundry. We have nothing,” he said.