‘This is our home now'

By Justin Boron

Seven months pregnant, her husband unemployed, and displaced from her own job, college, and home in New Orleans East, Tammie Magee clasps tight to the goodness that she said comes from God.

To the 26-year-old mother of two, Hurricane Katrina - a storm that ravaged her city, ripped the roof off her home, and sent her family packing to a motel in Jonesboro - is as much a blessing as it is a burden.

She said its destruction has allowed her family to escape the violence of New Orleans, once the murder capital of the nation. They will also be rid of a public school system reportedly riddled with internal problems. Hopefully, her husband will get a job with the commercial trucking license she said he is seeking. And eventually, she said will finish out her accounting degree that she started at Delgado College in New Orleans.

“This is home now,” she said.

Faced with so much adversity, how Magee keeps her optimism she said is a testament to her spiritual strength.

But like most expectant mothers, there is one task she says she might not be up to.

“I don't won't to deliver this baby in a motel,” she said.

Magee is one of the more than 68,000 evacuees Georgia Emergency Management Agency officials say are unfortunate enough to be still living in hotels and motels across the state. Right now, those evacuees are caught in the middle of a bureaucracy that is determining how a transitional housing program will be administered and what the cost to local governments will be to oversee it.

Some of those evacuees, like Magee, already had been taking federal housing assistance and had it transferred from New Orleans. She said her family will move into a College Park home once it gets furniture and supplies.

But for the many other evacuees, debate over the plan has slowed down the process and threatens to limit what local emergency management officials can and will do to help them.

The federal plan currently in place calls for local governments to pony up rent money and oversee the relocation of displaced families to homes or apartments. Federal emergency officials say they will reimburse the local governments for eligible expenses.

But local emergency officials say the startup money required may be too burdensome for local governments to bear. On top of that, they want more formal assurance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that all of the costs will be covered.

Because of the burden and uncertainty, some governments aren't even considering their participation in the transitional housing program.

So far, only 15 counties in the state have indicated they may join, said Lisa Ray, a GEMA spokeswoman.

Henry County has ruled out the possibility altogether, said Michael Turner, the county's public safety director and local emergency management coordinator. Part of the reason, he said, is that Henry County hasn't had the immediate demand that other counties have.

The other reason, Turner said, is the onus it places on an already strapped public safety department.

“Quite honestly, we don't have the resources,” he said.

Fortunately, he said judging from surveys of local motels, the number evacuees in Henry County as dissipated.

But in Clayton County, where family service officials have processed more than 2,200 requests for public assistance, the need appears to be much more immediate.

Clayton County has notified state emergency officials that it may pursue a transitional housing program.

But Alex Cohilas, Clayton County fire chief and emergency management director, said he is unsure the county will get all the way on board.

“The plan in its original form is extremely complicated, labor intensive, and fraught with financial pitfalls for local government,” he said.

County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said he didn't want to commit until he is sure that the county will be paid back.

Local emergency officials say they worry they will have to pay the balance of rents that exceed the threshold covered by FEMA. They also say they are concerned that county's will be left holding the bag on leases in which a family decides to return home or relocate before the agreements' term ends.

Bob Mair, the deputy federal coordinating officer for FEMA assistance in host-states, said local governments wouldn't be abandoned.

“Hopefully in the lease, there is a clause in there that allows them to get out of the lease,” he said, adding however, that a “lease is a lease.

“We're not going to leave local units high and dry.”

As for the rents that exceed what FEMA allows, he said the agency would consider any reasonable request on a case by case basis.

Lisa Ray, a spokeswoman for GEMA, said the state also asked federal officials to offer a $1,000 fee for every apartment that local government finds.

But Mair said that is something that FEMA cannot do.