Plan for evacuees criticized

Housing Katrina victims in trailers seen as misguided

October 31, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BAKER, La. -- In the two months since this season's hurricanes swept the Gulf Coast, the federal government has spent almost $1.3 billion buying 95,151 travel trailers to shelter evacuees -- an effort many housing experts nationwide view as misguided and unnecessarily expensive.

The idea of purchasing tens of thousands of mobile homes and scattering them across four Southern states in parks, driveways and temporary trailer communities is a critical component of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's assistance plan for the Gulf Coast.

The bills for creating the first big community, built along a road here 90 miles from New Orleans, are coming in, and they're eye-popping: $22 million to prepare the lots for 573 trailers. That's about $38,000 apiece, or more than twice the average price of each trailer.

Undeterred by the expense, FEMA is building 10 more trailer parks in the region, evaluating 79 sites and increasing its budget for park construction by hundreds of millions of dollars.

The agency's pursuit of its trailer-park plan comes as more than 1 million apartments sit empty across the South, prompting many critics to say FEMA missed a golden opportunity to house hurricane victims using the kind of rapid-response rental voucher system that was used during a previous natural disaster.

"To be frank, I'm bewildered by what has gone on here," said Bruce Katz, a former official with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "There doesn't seem to be a plan that was really thought out in any significant way."

Katz, who helped lead the government's housing response after a major earthquake near Los Angeles in 1994, relied on vacant rental units instead of trailers.

Criticism of today's temporary housing program has come from conservatives and liberals, who see the plan as costly and detrimental to hurricane victims' well-being. Beyond the fiscal cost is the social one: The trailer parks are likely to become crowded, remote and undesirable, giving residents little chance to conveniently tap into jobs or schools.

"I don't think it's the way to go," said John Weicher, a housing expert at the conservative Hudson Institute and a former Bush administration HUD official.

Just to open the one park completed, the government had to run electric lines, sink telephone poles and build a sewage treatment plant. For the next 18 months -- because the park was built so far from jobs and stores -- the government will have to cook victims' meals and post security guards while they sleep.

And when it's all over the government will pay again -- to tear it all down.

To be sure, the government's housing response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita has evolved, and different forms of rental assistance are available. But in the earliest days of the crisis, the game plan was heavy on trailers and light on rental vouchers -- the opposite of what housing experts said should have happened.

FEMA says it turned to trailers because of how quickly apartments in Louisiana were snatched up by people who had the means to rent them, leaving trailers as one of the few ways to get temporary housing close to New Orleans.

While some trailers would be necessary, housing experts said that relying on so many wasn't realistic. The agency, they say, should have spread people around the region during the recovery, rather than try to build small cities in and around New Orleans.

In the days immediately after Katrina hit, FEMA scrambled to begin ordering the first of what could add up to 125,000 travel trailers from scores of dealers and manufacturers. The orders are the largest of their kind in the agency's history by a factor of six and could eventually be worth $1.7 billion.

FEMA has 16,029 occupied trailers in the hurricane-hit states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, mostly in commercial mobile home communities, at state parks or on individually owned parcels. The first and so far only large-scale FEMA-built site to open is the one in Baker.

That pace falls far short of the 30,000 trailers every two weeks that FEMA initially expected to open after Katrina. However, FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said that was a "goal the construction crews set for themselves," not a FEMA prediction.

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