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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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308 COMMENTS

I feel that these people on these ships utilizing the aid should have to work for it! Everyone getting aid should have to help rebuild the area's that were so badly destroyed. Work during the day - get housing and food allounces. What is wrong with that? Why should I and my fellow hard working Americans work hard and raise descent families and use OUR monies (tax dollars) to allow poor and a lot of times lazy people to hang out on a cruise ship. I have never been on a cruise, have you??

Why not take the money being spent on the cruise ships, and build homes with this money? Not only would it repopulate the hurricane stricken areas, but by having people affected by the hurricane work on building, it would create tons of much needed jobs.

However, to the people who feel that all Katrina victims had ample time to get out, you are sorely mislead by your right wing leaders and idealistic beliefs. If you've EVER been to the south, you would know that some of the victims were so poor they were unable to escape: no money to travel, bad cars, etc.

Shame on your for imposing your upper middle class attitude on people who have never had (and will probably never again have) the experience of a cruise. This is probably the best experience of their lives.

You should be pointing your finger at the government, and in particular, your president.

My question is this if you don't live in a hurricane zone and have never experienced one what say do you have to begin with! Of course the govt is spending too much money but isn't that what our govt does. These poor people lost everything that they ever owned and it is not their fault so if you want to criticize someone why not criticize our fed govt! I live in the panhandle of Florida which was pounded by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 there are FEMA trailers a block from my home and probably half of them are sitting empty so what is the govt waiting for? Why doesn't our govt come get the trailers and take them over to Miss and Louisiana where they are needed!

Strictly speaking, it's not your tax dollars at work. Your tax dollars, are in the tanning booths, kicking up their heels, eating good food and being pampered....not having to work at all....

This is a disgrace and should be stopped.
These people should be moved to trailers, tents, etc on land.
I cannot belive our Govt is this wasteful.
These Contracts should be eliminated immediately.

This is not helping give the people affected any incentive to go find alternate housing. I would like to have room service every day as well. Who wouldn't? It is time the Government was held accountable and stop these silly handouts and the receipients be told the handouts are over.

I would love to sit on a cruise ship, get a tan, enjoy a free meal while the rest of the population is working. Wait a minute, I call that a vacation... The people in New Orleans had pleanty of advanced warning that the hurricane was coming. Did they leave?? NO!!! They waited for the government to bail them out. Now they call it racism. Come on folks, the government offered a multitude of chances to get out, but you decided to stay. Don't call it racism, don't call it the government not helping, call it your own stupidity for not leaving!!!! Every time a black person feels slighted, they play the race card. There is a great number of Hispanics, Asian and Caucasian people in need of aid too. I am sick of hearing it is a race thing. We are all AMERICANS!!!

I donated to the relief fund, as well as other Americans, but enough is enough. When do the hand outs stop, and people start taking care of themselves. There are plenty of homeless in other cities that need help. Why does the focus have to be on New Orleans, lets help all Americans!!! So in other words, get off your ass and get a job. Yes it is a tragedy, but the homeless in the rest of the country need help too.

I'm a Republican. It's not the victims fault that the govenment is wasting money. It's our fault for letting it get this way. A smaller more efficient government would have not thought the cruise ships were a good idea. Im not happy either but lets not blame the victims.

What is their incentive to leave?

why don't they send dem to da Peabody in Memphis...would be about as cheep.....shoot wish i could stay somewhere as nice....and the taxpayers foot the bill!!!!

I agree help those who were effected,but still let be known its temp..that one needs too seek work,but if FEMA would spend that amount money helping a Industry that this nation relies heavily on then maybe I wouldnt complain where My tax dollars are going..The Trucking Industry needs help with rising fuel cost,trucks stop running THIS COUNTRY STOPS SURVIVING..but no house people at $250 a day,its cheaper than help a Industry

Keep focus. It is illogical to blame the people on the cruise ships. The government should receive ultimate blame for placing them there.

Inconceivable...there are thousands of homes for rent across the nation, there are thousands of homes for sale across the nation..why not utilize our resources and help our cities across the nation...

is this how our goverment negotiates. It sounds like a payoff for a campaign contribution to me.Lets hold the proper people ie:Adminastration/agenc accountable for there action .How dear someone criticize a person who has been displaced and had to rely on the government for assistance. I am tired of people blaming the poor for all the problems with this country. only to watch corpoations getting richer and richer.What free education. DO you mean the system that trains you to be a worker not a self sufficient individual.The odds of changing the economic class (caste) you were born into especially at the lower end of the of the spectrum are totally against the individual. I wish I could go to work and fail at my job and have the ability to blame someone else for my shortcomings. This adminastration does a half ass job then blames the recipient for there own shortcoming's

there again government spending my HARD EARNRD money what a joke get real people !!!!

This is a big joke. If I was to go broke because of the stock-market dropping or because of my job being eliminated, do you think that the goverment would be willing to put me up until I was ready to get back on my feet. A lot of these people were welfare cases to start with and now they are living in luxury on a cruse ship. This is nothing but BS.

Ok it happended but why is people so negative regarding this. Just be lucky it is not you that this is happening to so about our tax money Uncle Sam takes it back anyways

Just think, six months of this, for $175K, That would pay for a nice big house where I live. Although they would have to go out and get a job to put food on the table...Boo Hoo!

I think it is disgusting that the government is wasting money on these floating cities. How about the govt. giving the $175,000 that they are spending and give it to the displaced people to fix up empty housing at closed bases.. March AFB in California has hundreds of empty military housing that would be perfect for them... There is plenty of housing...but Ithink that people are also taking advatage of free money and are lazy. No wonder I have to pay $90,000 in taxes every year...It makes me sick!!!

I had wrote congress stating it would have been cheaper to give each single person $100,000 and familys $200,000 and told them to relocate to another state or somewhere elese were they could live. That would have been more than enough to start a new life. You know it would be kind of like what they did to the people living in the Goza Strip.

Life is not fair; get over it!!!!

The issue now is how to fix it: Get them off the ship, provide shelters equivalent to what those people had before Katrina, and write to your congressmen complaining about this.

Does the break even price take into account Carnival's fuel savings, port charges, and other fees and costs associated with not operating at sea? If they are justifying the cost strictly off replacing passenger revenue, then the numbers are not valid. The correct method would be to run a true income less expenses, to see what their net income actually is. We are probably not receiving this information.

I think getting the ships to house the homeless was about the only good idea FEMA came up with at the time....I still see all of those people stuck in the heat under the overpasses or in that arena....but leave it to the government to mismanage a good idea!

Why doesn't the cruise line take the people on the cruise or do like all the other GOOD AMERICANS and donate part of the proceeds to the relief effort.

(They must be BUSH insiders0

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