ATLANTA -- On Feb. 13, the federal government stopped paying hotel bills for roughly 12,000 families nationwide who lost their homes to damage caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Once as high as 85,000, the number of hotel rooms being paid for by FEMA is down to 8,000. By March 6, FEMA says the hotel subsidies will be completely cut off.
At the Country Hearth Inn & Suites near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, people carted their belongings through the lobby and into the cars of family members and friends. Some were headed to new FEMA-subsidized apartments or trailers. But a few lagged behind, feverishly calling FEMA to plead for an extension on their government-funded hotel stay. The police arrived to help deal with one man who threatened the hotel manager.
Many of the displaced people interviewed for this story expressed disappointment at what they deemed insufficient government assistance. Some were scared. Others were frustrated at their inability to find a job or a place to live.
The following are stories of three women staying in two local hotels who lost their homes in New Orleans and are trying to start new lives in Atlanta. They are different people with different needs, but all are searching for the answer to the same question: What's next?
Kereston Williams and Alicia Reed were roommates in a house in the now decimated Chalmette neighborhood in New Orleans. They were split up after Katrina struck, but reunited in Atlanta in November.
"I hadn't seen her since August," Williams says. "And then I finally found her number through people, and as soon as I found her, I came the next day."
Now the girls are getting ready to part again.
Reed, a 22-year-old studying to become a medical assistant, is attempting to stay in Atlanta -- a city of which she's seen little, despite having lived in the metro area for nearly five months. She hopes that changes once she finalizes plans to move into a one-bedroom apartment, subsidized by FEMA, with her 7-year-old son.
Williams, 18, is reluctantly preparing to move to Dallas to live with her family. She says she had no luck convincing FEMA to give her money to help get an apartment in Atlanta, and she has been unable to find a job. After inquiring about employment at all of the retailers and restaurants within walking distance of the Decatur hotel she's called home, Williams was told there would be nothing available until after the holidays.
Once the holidays ended, Williams says the situation didn't improve.
On a Thursday afternoon, seated at a table in the lobby of the Decatur Country Hearth Inn & Suites, Reed, who has short, frosted hair and gold caps on her bottom teeth, and Williams, who looks as if she could be Reed's younger sister, were able to find some solace in the idea that they would reunite in New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
"A lot of people are going to go back and find people," Williams says.
"No other city can celebrate Mardi Gras like we do," says Reed, "so I think it's going to be more like a homecoming, like a family reunion."
Still, the two women insist they can never live in New Orleans again.
Williams says that, for her, the time that she spent living with other evacuees at the Superdome forever tainted the city she used to love.
"The toilet was all flooding and you got slippers on, and if you drop your clothes on the floor, then you might as well leave them on the floor because the floor is just that nasty," Williams says. "That's just something that I don't want to go through again. I don't even want to be around water."
"The whole summer I was trying to teach her how to swim," Reed chimes in.
"Seriously," Williams insists, "I am through with water."
Sonja Staves, a short, soft-spoken woman, says that after camping out for months at Country Hearth Inn & Suites in College Park, she received $6,800 from FEMA toward a new apartment. And that's exactly what she got. She found a one-bedroom unit at 900 Connally St., near Turner Field. She bought furniture. She moved in. And she quickly moved out.
"I'm not from here, so I didn't know the area," Staves says. "And it was a bad area. They broke into somebody's house right across from me and right next to me in broad daylight, so I was fearful for my life."
A FEMA spokesman says that the agency does have a search tool on its website that helps displaced people in new cities find available housing. But there is no way for a person in a new city to tell which areas are safer than others. It's hard to know from the classifieds' jumble of neighborhood names -- Adair Park vs. Ansley Park, College Park vs. Collier Hills, East Point vs. East Atlanta, West End vs. west side -- what each neighborhood might be like.
Though Staves paid her rent through the first three months, she stayed only a few weeks. After the burglaries, she put her new furniture into storage and moved back into the College Park hotel.
"I'm used to my own house," Staves says. "It's hard. And here, I called FEMA, and FEMA told me that they can't extend my hotel because I had a contract with an apartment, and it's not right."
Now Staves, who works for a cruise ship company and has been receiving worker's comp after pinching a nerve in her foot, doesn't know what to do. She says her hotel room is paid through March 16. After that, she doesn't know where she will go.
Staves says one of the hardest parts about living at the hotel is that she feels disconnected from the outside world. Country Hearth Inn & Suites is within walking distance of just two restaurants: Joe's and Ruby Tuesday's. There is a free shuttle that offers transportation to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and back. And that's about it.
"I've been here three months or longer," Staves says. "Sometimes I can't get a ride to get nothing to eat. I'm in here hungry."