RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And even as the debate over Katrina continues, the government is winding down a program to shelter the victims. The Federal Emergency Management Agency spent more than $500 million on hotel rooms for people displaced by Katrina and Rita. Now tens of thousands of people are losing the subsidy and are trying to find a new place to stay.
NPR's Audie Cornish has more from New Orleans.
AUDIE CORNISH, reporting:
Yesterday appeared to be the last day FEMA would continue to pay for Dominique Johnson to stay at the Astro Crowne Plaza Hotel on Canal Street. The former social worker from the city's uptown neighborhood has received rental assistance from FEMA, but says he needs just a little more time.
Mr. DOMINIQUE JOHNSON (Evacuee, New Orleans): Now I'll probably go to a shelter. I'll probably go to a shelter; I don't have a choice. The rental assistance that's been afforded to people in New Orleans is based on pre-Katrina figures market values, not post-Katrina.
CORNISH: Many people like Johnson delayed their checkout time to the last moment, pinning their hopes on a move by housing rights advocates to stop FEMA. But a federal judge in New Orleans denied a request aimed at stopping the agency from dropping evacuees from its emergency hotel assistance. By one o'clock, former evacuee John Williams was pulling a bellhop's luggage cart behind him, stacked with plastic bags of juice, cookies, coats, and clothes to his car. But where was he headed?
Mr. JOHN WILLIAMS (Evacuee, New Orleans): I don't know, but I'm not going to a shelter, that's for sure.
CORNISH: Williams is still waiting for an insurance check to help him finish renovating his home. It took on five feet of water after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and still has no power. His family scattered from Georgia to Texas, and he says, for now, he might have to stay on the top floor of his half-gutted house.
On the sidewalk, Loretta Smith and her friend, Cynthia Falls are watching and shaking their heads because they're next.
Ms. LORETTA SMITH (Evacuee, New Orleans): We're homeless. And FEMA told us to go to a shelter.
Ms. CYNTHIA FALLS (Evacuee, New Orleans): We didn't come out of a shelter.
Ms. SMITH: We didn't come out of a shelter.
Ms. FALLS: We're working citizens, paying tax money.
Ms. SMITH: We work every day and pay taxes. We're not born in the shelter.
Ms. FALLS I'm not going in a shelter.
CORNISH: The women are staying at the same hotel as Williams, but are scheduled to see their hotel assistance end March 1. Loretta Smith's home in New Orleans East stands gutted and without power awaiting contractors; Smith says her situation will look no better in two weeks.
Ms. SMITH: FEMA haven't come through with a trailer. We don't know when it's going to come through. What are we going to do? Are they going to put us up a hotel? Where are we going? You can't find homes. There are no houses here. So, what are we going to do?
CORNISH: BUT FEMA doesn't want to spend its money on hotels. The agency would rather put its dollars directly into the hands of evacuees in the form of rental vouchers. Libby Turner is head of FEMA's Transitional Housing Unit.
Ms. LIBBY TURNER (Head of FEMA's Transitional Housing Unit): So we just looked at the situation and this is what we've decided is the best way to go. And our experience tells us that there do have to be end dates. And that is actually helpful to folks to move on in their recovery process.
CORNISH: And that's also the hope of Dominique Johnson. After spending the day with his cell phone pinned to his ear, he managed to win an extension. FEMA is not dropping his hotel room, at least not yet, because of the delay in his property damage assistance. And he's gotten news that he may have a shot at an apartment.
Ms. JOHNSON: I have a place to sleep tonight, tomorrow, up until March 1st. It gives me more time to do my planning and everything, and I think the prayers have just been answered. When everybody prays, God listens; prayers go up, blessings come down.
CORNISH: He says the landlord thinks the place will be ready by March 1st.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.