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Fate of Katrina victims at Radisson unsure

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Cottingham had been living in Laurel, Miss., when the storm hit. He arrived back in New York by bus in late September, a few weeks after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, with only his Red Cross letter and a $360 debit card.After four months at the Radisson Hotel at Kennedy Airport, Cottingham is still waiting for government aid to materialize. Cottingham suffers from anxiety and diabetes and does not know where he will go when a Feb. 13 deadline to move out of the hotel arrives."I'm just hoping," Cottingham said, speaking in general terms. "What else can I do?"Cottingham and the other Katrina victims at the hotel were recently granted a two-week extension by Radisson officials, who had hoped to begin a $7 million renovation project on Jan. 31. The project would have required the victims to move out, but pressure from community activists and a protest outside the hotel Saturday apparently convinced hotel officials to reconsider their stance and grant an extension until Feb. 13.Tony Pinto, the hotel's general manager, said the Radisson had initially planned to begin the construction on Jan. 3, but had pushed the date back several times to accommodate the hurricane victims. The hotel, which is being reimbursed by FEMA for rooms occupied by Katrina victims, is "doing everything possible to be a 'good citizen,'" Pinto said.The Federal Emergency Management Agency has extended its deadline. After first saying it would stop paying costs for hurricane victims staying at hotels across the country on Dec. 15, FEMA extended the deadline to Jan. 7 and subsequently to Feb. 7. Still, despite the extension it is unlikely that all of the 50 or so families that remain at the Radisson will find permanent housing by Feb. 13. At its peak, the Radisson housed about 64 families. Some have already gone back to the Gulf Coast, while others have found permanent housing and left the hotel with a promise from FEMA to pay at least a year's rent.Yolandis Turner, a minister from New Orleans whose family is in Texas, has had a much more frustrating experience. Turner said he found an apartment in Brooklyn about two months ago, but was told she would have to wait on a list along with other victims in order to receive FEMA aid. Turner said that at every turn she has run into bureaucratic red tape, particularly a lack of coordination between government agencies, that is preventing her and other victims from re-establishing their lives."It's a disgrace that the country has not stepped in and done what's right," Turner said. "This is the most degrading thing we have ever experienced."Area politicians are working to avoid the burgeoning housing crisis and place as many victims as possible in permanent housing before they are forced to leave the Radisson.State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) said that leases for the victims can be reimbursed by FEMA for at least a year and possibly longer if a government agency facilitates the process. Smith has lobbied Mayor Michael Bloomberg to either have the city sign the leases (an unlikely possibility, he said) or partner with a third party, possibly a non-profit housing agency, to do the same."We will continue until the last person has moved on to establishing themselves wherever they are interested," Smith said.Reach Reporter Craig Giammona by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300 ext. 146.

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