Thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims living in hotels got a reprieve when a federal judge ruled Monday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could not cut off rent payments in early January and must extend the program until Feb. 7, reports said.

“FEMA’s actions in reference to its subsidy of hotels and motels has been notoriously erratic and numbingly insensitive,” U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood Duval of the Eastern District of Louisiana said yesterday after hearing testimony from evacuees last week, according to media reports.

The decision, which will affect about 40,000 evacuees, was a rebuff for federal officials who had sought to force individuals and families to take over responsibility for their own housing, accounts said.

And it was yet another setback for an agency that has continually drawn criticism for its response to the hurricane, both in the immediate aftermath of the August storm and in the months since.

A congressional committee held a hearing last Thursday on emergency housing assistance concerns in the region affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The hearing focused on the Federal government’s response to the emergency housing needs of residents affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, specifically the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s hotel program for evacuees.

FEMA has changed the deadline for the hotel program three times since taking over the program from the Red Cross in late October.

Speaking of this deadline decision yesterday, the federal judge said, “It is unimaginable what anxiety and misery these erratic and bizarre vacillations by FEMA have caused these victims, all of whom, for at least one point in time, had the very real fear of being without shelter for Christmas,” reports said.

Lawyers for evacuees had argued that FEMA should not be permitted to end the hotel program before the agency had finished processing thousands of applications for temporary housing, especially when FEMA admitted that it couldn’t process all the applications by its own deadline, according to reports.

Ending the program under those conditions would effectively leave thousands of evacuees homeless, the court said, according to reports.

“This is the victory we prayed for,” Howard Godnik, one of the lawyers who brought the suit, told the Baltimore Sun. “I’ve met these people … these are people without hope. At least we’ve provided them some ray of hope in what otherwise has been a grim holiday season.”

About 85,000 applications for temporary housing are pending with FEMA, Godnik said.

Duval held that FEMA’s decision to end the program violated the federal statute governing emergency relief that forbids discrimination on grounds of economic status. The judge pointed out that many evacuees were living with friends and family, while others have been able to pay for replacement housing on their own, and that people in both groups have been receiving temporary housing assistance. He said that the plaintiffs “did not choose to live in hotel rooms.”

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to janis@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 140.

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