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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- A FEMA contract to house Katrina evacuees on cruise ships, roundly blasted as exorbitant government spending, is currently costing U.S. taxpayers substantially more per person than some of its harshest critics estimated -- nearly $250 per person per night, according to figures obtained by MSNBC.com.

At that rate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would spend more than $175,000 for each family of four that lives for six months aboard one of the three ships provided under the $236 million contract with Carnival Cruise Lines. Room service also is included in that price tag -- three meals a day and snacks.

FEMA says it cannot calculate the precise costs per person for the floating hotels because it does not track occupancy of the ships in that fashion. The agency says it knows only how many cabins are occupied on the Ecstasy and Sensation, docked in New Orleans, and the Holiday, docked in Pascagoula, Miss., not how many people are living in each cabin.

“To be honest with you, I really don’t know,” FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said in response to repeated requests for a head count. Nor does anyone else in the federal government, said the Washington, D.C.-based Andrews, who said she could not get the figures “unless I went on board and knocked on doors.”

But it took Carnival Cruises Lines just two hours to provide the current headcount when asked by MSNBC.com. According to Carnival public relations coordinator Irene Liu, on Wednesday there were 5,370 evacuees living aboard the three ships, 2,418 on the Ecstasy, 1,996 on the Sensation and 956 on the Holiday.

That count is well below the 7,000-passenger combined capacity for the three ships, 2,600 each for the Ecstasy and Sensation and 1,800 for the Holiday.

Cost expected to keep climbing

MSNBC.com arrived at the current $244 per-night, per-person cost of the cruise ship housing by dividing the cost of the contract by the current number of inhabitants. With FEMA’s own releases showing a steady decline in occupancy of the cruise ships since late November, that cost is presumably rising and will continue to do so until the contract expires in early March.

The counting of occupied cabins rather than evacuees is a departure from FEMA’s initial publicity about the use of the ships. In a Sept. 4 press release, then-FEMA Director Michael Brown spoke of the Sensation and the Ecstasy, originally sent to Galveston, Texas, as having room for “about 2,600 passengers each” and the Holiday, first docked in Mobile, Ala., as providing space for “about 1,800 displaced persons.” Brown later resigned his job amid charges of incompetence.

The switch from counting evacuees to cabins occurred because “in some cabins, every single bed is filled and in other cabins it is a single city worker,” Andrews said. “Those ships are filled to capacity.” So is a fourth ship owned by a different cruise line and docked in St. Bernard’s Parish, she said.

Andrews went on to say that “if the ships are filled to capacity, it’s $190 per night” per person. When asked how FEMA could calculate a per-person, per-night cost without knowing how many people were on the ships, Andrews acknowledged it is not possible.


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Cost questions have dogged the Carnival contract since it first became public. Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., called it a “grossly overpriced sweetheart deal.” Coburn aides noted that even with the ships housing their full 7,000-passenger capacity, the weekly cost for each person was more than double the price of some seven-day Caribbean cruises.

In seeking a congressional probe of the contract’s “grossly over-inflated costs,” Mississippi Rep. Bennie G. Thompson noted at the time that housing a family of four on one of the ships for six months might cost as much as $120,000, the price of a single-family home “in many of the areas struck by the hurricane.”

'It is pitiful'

Told this week by MSNBC.com that it might cost far more than that, Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security, said: “It is pitiful that FEMA's only stable housing program has consisted of overpaying for cruise ships that may not be fully occupied. … Sadly, that money could have gone to the tens of thousands living in tents and travel trailers this holiday season."

Andrews, the FEMA spokeswoman, defended the contract as the only way “to house people in areas where all of the housing had been wiped out. …Congressman Thompson, of all people, would understand the need to have some emergency housing in an area where the entire housing stock was wiped out.”

Andrews said there is not a cost-effective way in which the government can get out of the contract before it’s completed but “when the term of the contract is up, we’ll find other places for the people to go.”

The cruise ship shelter also is popular with many of those living on board the luxury liners.

Waveland, Miss., resident Edna Summers had nothing but praise for the program. She spent time on the Holiday, traveling with it when it sailed from Mobile to Pascagoula.

"We had maids cleaning the room," she told MSNBC.com. "They cooked. I didn't have to do anything but take a shower and eat."

Summers said she also received FEMA assistance on the boat, including help in getting a replacement copy of her birth certificate and preparing for the high school equivalency exam. "It was a great experience because I never had anything like that," she said.

Cruise line defends break-even deal

Carnival representatives also defend the deal as one in which the company will make no more money than it would have if the ships were conducting their normal tourist cruises.

The Miami-based company, which operates a total of 79 ships, reported last week that its fourth-quarter profits were up 20 percent.

“They’re not hurting at all,” said Jennifer Gore, the Democrats’ communications director for the Committee on Homeland Security.

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Are these people really worth that? Come on! They had a ton of warning that a HUGE hurricane is coming. They had plenty of chances. Also, many of these people were in the position they were in because they did not take advantage of the FREE education that all Americans are entitled to. Succeed in school, get a decent job, be able to buy a car so you have tranportation! Many of these people do not feel inconvenienced. They're enjoying their $250 a night digs and will put up a fight to leave.

My question is this...when are the people living on board the ships going to have to take care of themselves? Why is my tax dollars going to pay for someone sitting on a ship "taking a shower and eating" as one lady put her day's adventures and not going out to get a job or provide for themselves? I'd gladly let my house get destroyed if the government was going to pay for me to do nothing while staying on a cruise ship.

Your tax dollars and my dollars at work!


Corporate America making a buck on someone elses misery. Shame on you! Our tax dollars should go to help the victims of Katrina rebuild and restablish themselves, not to pad the pockets of a corporation.

Where are these family's with children going to put their christmas tree this season, I think that the government could have been paying for a accomidation like Apartments and townhomes for that price tag ,,

C'mon folks. When have you ever seen the feds spend our money wisely? Examples of obscene overspending by the feds of our tax dollars are everywhere you look, the most prominent current example of which is the Haliburton no bid contracts in Iraq. The folks that are living on the cruise ships are not to blame. It's our government, the current administration, that is to blame.

Just shows you how screwed up FEMA is... I live in Biloxi and there's still thousands living in tents (working and living in tents, IN AMERICA)... They're waiting for a FEMA trailor as there are no houses or aprtments to rent, but they punish while the folks on the cruise shipe ENJOY... You're right, most on the cruise ships were in government housing (chapter 8 crap) so why should they look, they'll never live this good again and they can teach their kids how to get over and let the TAXPAYERS pay there way, just like their folks taught them.... Everyone could get a bus to go to the million man march, but after a week of warnings couldn't get out of the way of KATRINA....
God Bless America....

Oh my god...... this is yet another reason this country is going to "crap". How about a government that SAVES money, spends WISELY, and LOWERS taxes instead of WASTING money, Spending FRIVILOUSLY, and RAISING the Deficit.... Ahhhhh Tax dollars being spent like this makes living overseas look oh so inviting!!! The downward spiraling of hope of America's people continues....

This is further argument for subsidized housing in the United States. The Federal Government needs to spend money on creating affordable housing and jobs for these people. Subsidized housing would be much more affordable than paying businesses to house people.

People act like it is easy to just get up on your feet when you’ve lost everything, find a well paying job, and live the American dream. That is simply not the case. While I agree the government is spending money inappropriately housing people in hotels and on cruse ships, I do not agree that we shouldn’t help these people. We have definite economic problems in the United States, and Katrina has made many of those problems visible. It is only up to rich, white voters like yourselves to wake up and do what your religion mandates you to do: help the poor.

Nevertheless, many of us are still in denial about poverty in the United States. I know that if Katrina hit Baltimore, where I live, I would have nowhere to go and would be in the same situation.

For that price why don't we just build all of these families homes. At least it is a permanent solution.

It is the responsibility of a community to get to work to rebuild their community that was destroyed. The people on these cruise ships never had it so good. They don't care about home, they only care about what they can leech off the government. I don't care if they are poor and homeless, so were most of the people in the great depression.
Get to work! Don't you care about rebuilding your community? Probably not, since you didn't give a darn about it before the hurricane either.

How did the Gov. decide who would stay on the cruise ships and who would be sent to Oklahoma? It seems to me that there is a big difference in placing people.

oh what a tangled web.....

let them have the fun, what are the chances of them ever ever enjoying something like this?

If they want the lodging, then they should be put to work when they get back home. The government will at least get some money back on labor rebuilding the city.
I really hope they enjoy their food and lodging because the the New Orleans reputation is trashed. In most cities in America, the people of a community would be working hard to get back on their feet. Ever wonder why people are poor in America? Here's proof that we CHOOSE to be poor in America. Their laziness is shining for the world to see and it's obviously a habit they had from youth.
Enjoy the shrimp!

I can't understand the premise that it will be too costly for the government to opt out of the Carnival contract and move the refugees elsewhere. We're talking about a natural disaster here that affected millions of lives and yet the government can not step in and just cancel the contract with Carnival? I'd be willing to take in 4 people in my house if the government would pay me $1000 a day for me to take care of them. This is just ludicrous.

The article seems to slam FEMA - where I'm not a fan of large government, didn't a judge rule last month that the government MUST keep these people "housed" in to '06? I don't mind debate but leaving these facts out doesn't merit honest debate - just like having 5000 dead under the dome, rape at every turn and gangs killing women and children in the dome. I don't know Stuckey (the author) but just don't trust stories like this any more...

why havent the goverment relocated these people they could have a nice house for life for the cost of six months on a cruise ship to nowhere.another unthought waste of money .

I have a deal for you...I will rent my house in San Antonio to the Katina victims, for the same price, and I will take their place on the cruise ship, assuming it gets out of port and goes to a few nice destinations.

It's about time for many of these people to get off there rear ends and find a job.But you must remember that s why they are in this mess,I mean you know the let george do it mentality.I was raised with the thought that if a tragedy were to happen to me or my family you get off your butt and try to recoupe yourself instead of letting everyone else foot the bill for you.It's past time for feeling sorry for a lot of these people.

I do believe a majority of the people affected in that area are doing better than before Katrina financially. I imagine in the future a great many will be praying for future disasters who are otherwise less fortunate. This is a very sad time in American history.

What a shame!


I am shocked, stunned and speechless! When are we going to get those Dodo FEMA idiots off the government payroll. Don't they have any brains?
And quit pandering to those "evacuees!" They are not the only people "suffering" ~ but at $250 per night with room service? How stylish can suffering get?

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