Straining to meet President Bush's mid-October deadline to clear out shelters, the federal government has moved hundreds of thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina into hotel rooms at a cost of about $11 million a night, a strategy local officials and some members of Congress criticize as incoherent and wasteful.This is the problem of dealing with 1 million refugees. This is the problem of incompetence and the absolute refusal to treat the obligations of government as an obligation of governance (and let's be honest, and even Niebuhrian about it: we are all complicit in that to one degree or another) . And this is why the reconstruction of New Orleans will not, in the final analysis, be left to lobbyists.
The number of people in hotels has grown by 60 percent in the past two weeks as some shelters closed, reaching nearly 600,000 as of Tuesday. Even so, relief officials say they cannot meet the deadline, as more than 22,000 people were still in shelters in 14 states on Wednesday.
The reliance on hotels has been necessary, housing advocates say, because the Federal Emergency and Management Agency has had problems installing mobile homes and travel trailers for evacuees and has been slow to place victims in apartments that real estate executives say are available throughout the southeast.
Hotel costs are expected to grow to as much as $425 million by Oct. 24, a large expense never anticipated by the FEMA, which is footing the bill. While the agency cannot say how that number will affect overall spending for storm relief, critics point out that hotel rooms, at an average cost of $59 a night, are significantly more expensive than apartments and are not suitable for months-long stays.
Officials in cities from Dallas to Atlanta, which are accommodating thousands of evacuees, give credit for getting 90 percent of the victims out of shelters. But they say they are frustrated by FEMA's record in helping place people in more adequate housing.
"Deplorable. Disappointing. Outrageous. That is how I feel about it," said the Atlanta mayor, Shirley Franklin, a Democrat, in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "The federal response has just been unacceptable. It is like talking to a brick wall."
My daughter was reviewing Reconstruction history last night. She had a map of the Congressional districts in Louisiana and Mississippi after the War, for the years of two elections. Louisiana gained a congressional district in the era between the two years represented by the maps (1874 and 1876, IIRC). In 1874, both states went almost solidly Republican, because the GOP promised to help the freed slaves. By 1876 those promises were unfulfilled, and the KKK was working hard to suppress the vote through terrorism (death has a wonderful way of getting the attention of the living). Mississippi and Louisiana swung back to be solidly Democratic.
Which simply means dramatic shifts can occur, despite what the pundits and pollsters and pooh-bahs say. And that may already be happening. As pollster Peter Hart says of Bush's latest numbers: "Any way you slice this data, I think these are just terrible sets of numbers." One thing is certain: Bush has fallen through that "floor" Newsweek thought he'd found just 10 days ago. Indeed, even Howard Fineman has declared the party over; the rats are now leaving the ship.
But where does this leave the people? What will we, the people, do about it? That's the real political question.
ADDENDUM: As I was saying, apropos of that dramatic change in voting patterns during Reconstruction:
A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that just 2 percent of African-Americans approve of his leadership. NBC’s Tim Russert — who called the number “a dramatic setback” — looked into it, and he could not “find a pollster who can remember any President ever getting just 2 percent approval from African-Americans.”