Going Nowhere Fast

Today, everywhere you look in the news, you see them. People trapped in cars, running from a storm, running into traffic, running out of gas, and running out of patience. But while swarms of reporters and camera crews have turned their collective attention on the evacuees from Hurricane Rita who are stuck in their cars, another group waits in endless lines just off camera — the evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, still stuck in shelters.

Yesterday, the New York Times checked in on Katrina refugees still living in shelters in towns up and down the Gulf Coast, from Shreveport to Houma to Natchitoches to Lake Charles to Abita Springs. And among those individuals hoping to get out of the shelters and into federally subsidized housing, the Times discovered another traffic jam — one that is no less grueling.

“Things are moving so much quicker at the shelters in Texas,” said one hurricane refugee in Louisiana. “Here, it’s like a turtle.”

In other words, hardly moving.

According to the Times, some 70,000 evacuees from Katrina are still dwelling in more than 650 shelters around the nation, including some 30,000 or so in 317 shelters in Louisiana.

“There has been a steady trickle of evacuees moving out of the shelters over the last two weeks, some into hotels, others into housing that they have found, either on their own or with the help of church groups and others,” noted the Times. “The trickle might have become a surge, relief officials said, if not for the scarcity of available housing in the state.”

“For the most part,” added the Times, “food and daily necessities are plentiful, but promised money from the federal government and the Red Cross has been maddeningly slow to arrive.”

So what’s the hold up? Maddeningly, the Times story fails to shed much light on that question. But today in a front-page story, the Washington Post provided a fuller analysis:

“Nearly four weeks after Hurricane Katrina displaced more Americans from their homes than any event in at least 60 years, efforts to find housing for 200,000 families from the devastated Gulf Coast are getting bogged down, according to federal, state and private sector officials,” reported the Post today. “Federal Emergency Management Agency officials complain of a drastic shortage of sites suitable to state and local officials for the huge trailer parks that FEMA hopes to establish for evacuees. Local and parish leaders say FEMA’s plans to supply the trailer parks with water, sewer, electricity and other services are haphazard or nonexistent.”

With the construction of trailer parks more or less at a standstill, FEMA officials have turned to a plan B, the Post reported, lining up temporary housing in hotels, motels, shuttered military bases — even cruise ships.

But anything short of a Spanish Armada-like gathering of cruise ships probably won’t do the trick. As a result, the Senate recently voted in support of $3.5 billion in Housing and Urban Development vouchers for Katrina victims, reported the Post. But even that “alternative to trailers” appears to be problematic. “The topic is politically sensitive,” noted the Post. “In his 2006 budget, Bush proposed ratcheting back the HUD Section 8 housing voucher program for the poor as well as related community programs.” (A Los Angeles Times story to which we linked earlier today also dwelt on Bush’s aversion to housing vouchers.)

All of which, the Post’s reporting suggests, might significantly throw off President Bush’s stated goal of emptying out the temporary shelters by mid-October. Not to mention what might happen when the evacuees of Hurricane Rita finally escape from lines on the highway and get into lines at the shelters.

“We seem to be in this new state of chaos,” Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told the Post. “Nobody’s on message, because everybody’s got their own message.”

Felix Gillette

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.