"Anytime it clouds up now, my 4-year-old asks, 'Mommy, is the hurricane coming again? Is it going to kill us this time?'" Marissa Jones said. Jones, an evacuee from Gulfport with five kids, aged 4 to 17, is facing eviction from her hotel room as a March 1 FEMA deadline approaches.
Immediately following the storm, Jones and her children stayed in a shelter in Mendenhall. In the five months since, they have stayed in a hotel room in Jackson. FEMA approved Jones for a temporary FEMA trailer on Nov. 8, but FEMA has not yet placed the trailer
"I keep telling them I have a site ready," Jones said. "They say that I should be patient, that someone will call me. Then no one calls. I had to beg them to extend my hotel payments to March."
If FEMA does not place the trailer by March 1, Jones does not know where she and her family will live.
Bandaka Soule of New Orleans has been staying in a Comfort Inn with her husband and their two boys. They are lucky, in one sense, as HUD assigned them a home Dec. 21. Yet they have not been able to move into their new home, and they also face eviction.
"Before we can move in, HUD said the house has to be painted and fixed up a bit before it meets their standards," Soule said. "HUD subcontracts out the maintenance to this company in Alabama, and they're taking forever to get it done. They could be working on it right now on a day like this, but they're not."
"We all understand that folks are going to have to come out of the hotels, but where do they go?" asked Oleta Fitzgerald of the Children's Defense Fund. "The way FEMA's bungled these hotels is the biggest mess you'll ever want to see."
Fitzgerald said her office alone is serving 250 evacuee families, one-third of them facing eviction from FEMA hotel rooms. More than half still have no permanent residence. Other private agencies serve hundreds of other families.
"What is common to all the families is that they're struggling to find work and take care of their children," Fitzgerald said. "They're struggling with how to move forward without any basic support system."
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Lea Stokes recommends that evacuees visit the Disaster Recovery Center in Jackson at the Metrocenter or call 1-800-621-FEMA, a recommendation FEMA Public Affairs Officer Eugene Brezany echoes.
"You can check on your FEMA status there and make sure the case workers know there's a problem," Stokes said, listing paperwork requirements that might delay a case.
"We are guiding people as best we can, on a case-by-case basis," Brezany said, "but we have to be kept in the loop."
Soule has called FEMA and HUD many times. HUDwould not even provide her with the name of the subcontractor, though they assure her that her home will be ready by the March 1 deadline.
Fitzgerald believes that the government's piecemeal approach to assistance has made it difficult for evacuees to navigate the system. "There's a lot of Katrina money out there," Fitzgerald said, "but there's no one coordinating it. The government is not paying attention to families at all."
Brezany said that FEMA makes referrals to HUD and provides funding for employment assistance, but evacuees must work with those agencies themselves.
Fitzgerald predicts that some families will move from hotels into homeless shelters or churches. "Many of the people who were caught in New Orleans got caught there for the same reasons they can't move forward now—they didn't have transportation, they were single mothers with very little resources. Now it's happening again. We do not want this to be a survival of the fittest situation."
Stokes said that FEMA is not supposed to end hotel payments to evacuees without providing rental assistance.
"FEMA does not put anyone out," Brezany said. "We're simply halting the hotel funding. For people who can't go home, we provide rental subsidies until they can find permanent housing."
Meanwhile, Soule and Jones worry about their families. Jones said her youngest is in counseling to help her through the trauma wrought by Katrina.
"People think we don't want to move forward, but we do," Jones said. "Before the storm, I worked and took care of myself. I don't know anything about Jackson. I don't have a car or a job. What am I supposed to do?"
Soule said her mother-in-law, who for the moment lives across the hall from them at the hotel, is suffering from the uncertainty. "The stress is making her so sick she's losing her hair. She lost everything, and now she's going to get kicked out of her hotel room on March 1."
It seems like issues such as these should be at the top of our politician's lists. How can they say they are trying to do what is best for the city when there are those like this family that are potentially facing homelessness in the next few days? This is what I don't get about politics or about where people's priorities are.
- c a webb