Andrew's lesson

September 18, 2005

THE FEDERAL Emergency Management Agency, which is overseeing the mammoth relocation of thousands of displaced Hurricane Katrina victims, should draw lessons from Hurricane Andrew, which struck Florida in 1992.

Like Katrina, Andrew changed the state's landscape overnight, destroying 47,000 homes and forcing 101,000 people to move. Until Katrina, it was the most damaging and costly natural disaster in American history. Homestead and Florida City were among the hardest-hit towns, and the poor Americans and immigrant farm workers who lived there wound up in tent cities, mobile homes and trailer parks provided by FEMA. Though meant to be temporary, the parks turned into long-term lodging and became rundown, crime-ridden, marginalized clusters of poverty.

Those events in Florida are a stark reminder of what should not happen this time around as FEMA installs several thousand mobile homes and trailers in state parks and commercial lots in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi to house 200,000 displaced residents. Moving people out of shelters and into more livable accommodations should help them begin stitching their lives back together, but the federal government should make sure these temporary quarters don't become permanent encampments that keep the poorest and least politically powerful disaster victims out of sight and out of mind.

Planning for their eventual departure from these housing sites should be occurring even as FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development scramble to house the mostly poor evacuees who had been renting or living in federally subsidized housing. The five-year occupancy limit should be firm and residents moved into permanent, affordable housing long before they reach the deadline. Because relocated residents will live rent-free, they should be encouraged to save portions of work income for rent or mortgage payments when they move out. The camps should be used as recruiting centers to hire workers for the rebuilding effort that President Bush has said will use residents from the affected areas. Those lacking marketable skills should be urged to take advantage of job training and education paid for by Worker Recovery Accounts proposed by the president.

Though costly and logistically challenging, the temporary relocation plan offers a chance to turn a devastating disaster into an opportunity to move large numbers of evacuees out of poverty. If mishandled, the effort will only perpetuate it.

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