Saturday, September 10, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Evacuees praise Red Cross

The Washington Post

LAFAYETTE, La. — Harold Mitchell is hard-pressed to think of anything good that has happened since Hurricane Katrina chased him out of New Orleans — except that the Red Cross is picking up the $100-a-night tab for his hotel here and he didn't have to do a lick of paperwork.

"It's about the best thing I can think of," said Mitchell, 65, a teacher's aide in New Orleans who is sharing a double room at the Lafayette Holiday Inn with three other members of his family.

In a massive, costly and little-noticed effort to calm a housing catastrophe that reaches from Florida to Texas, the Red Cross has quietly created an open-ended program that it says is now picking up hotel bills for at least 57,000 people. Room charges are being paid out of the $503 million that the Red Cross has collected so far for hurricane relief.

The program began early this week, when several thousand hotels and motels in and around the Gulf Coast area were notified by the Red Cross that registered guests who can show that they lived in 256 storm-affected ZIP codes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama would be eligible to have their unpaid room charges covered by the Red Cross.

Most of those who have taken advantage of the program are "those who had the resources and transportation to evacuate themselves," said Stacy Grissom, a spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., for the Red Cross.

The Red Cross said yesterday that the two-week limit will probably not be enforced because tens of thousands of people in hotels and motels are unlikely to have other housing options for weeks or months.

"It is not going to be 14 days, and they are not going to be kicked out of the hotels," Grissom said. "Our priority is to make sure these people have a shelter over their heads."

"For our area, it is very good hotel business," said James Thackston, general manager of the Hilton Lafayette. With a pre-hurricane population of 110,000 people, Lafayette has absorbed about 40,000 evacuees.

In contrast to this week's confusing and sometimes chaotic effort by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to issue $2,000 debit cards to evacuees, the Red Cross hotel program seems to be working smoothly, with virtually no paper work for evacuees and a simplified billing process.

"I have never seen anything with the government that is this simple," Thackston said.

At the Jackson Marriott, the largest hotel in Jackson, Miss., general manager Tom Schweitzer said that only six of the guests in his 303-room hotel have so far asked for help.

For evacuees who have been struggling to get help from the federal government, the relative ease of getting the Red Cross to pay for hotel room charges is striking.

Julie Burkhamer and her husband and their two cats and a dog are staying in a $100-a-night room at the La Quinta hotel in Lafayette after their home on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain was damaged in the storm.

"Now FEMA, that's a different story," Burkhamer said. "They haven't done jack squat. I contacted them by phone and they said they would be back to me in two weeks. There is no one around here to see from FEMA. To get the Red Cross hotel coverage, I didn't have to do anything."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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