FEMA housing slow in arriving

Only 15 percent of trailers in use by storm evacuees

November 06, 2005|By ANDREW MARTIN | ANDREW MARTIN,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAKER, La. -- Ten weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has delivered just 15 percent of the travel trailers and mobile homes that it purchased for temporary housing.

The beleaguered agency ordered 125,000 travel trailers and mobile homes as part of an ambitious effort to quickly provide housing for the estimated 600,000 people who were displaced by Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which ripped through east Texas and western Louisiana three weeks later.

As of last week, however, FEMA had installed 18,834 travel trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi and another 494 mobile homes. Thousands of others sit in four staging areas scattered throughout the Gulf Coast region.

FEMA's trailer program, estimated to cost well over $2 billion, is one aspect of the federal government's halting response to those left homeless by the powerful hurricanes.

The government's primary housing plan is to offer rental assistance to evacuees so they can move into more permanent housing; to date, 488,000 Gulf Coast evacuees have received rental assistance.

But many evacuees didn't want to relocate, and Louisiana and Mississippi have encouraged them to stay in their home states.

With few vacant apartments and homes left on the Gulf Coast, FEMA trailers have become a much-desired commodity.

FEMA is filling an average of 500 trailers a day, placing them either in newly constructed trailer parks, parking them in existing trailer parks or, whenever possible, placing them on driveways or front yards so evacuees can work on their damaged homes.

Even at that rate, thousands of people remain waiting in relatives' homes, idling in hotel rooms (FEMA is still paying for 69,000 hotel rooms) or, in the worst case, scraping by in shelters, tents or severely damaged homes.

`Horrible' experience

"My experience has been horrible," said Vanessa Posey, 44, who lives with her seven children in a tent in the front yard of her mother's home in East Biloxi, Miss., using a camp stove for heat and the back yard as a toilet. She said FEMA promised her a mobile home a few days after the storm. On Wednesday, she got two travel trailers instead, neither of which had electricity.

"I'm still over at the tent until I can get some power," Posey said Friday, as she tried to persuade the local power company to connect her trailers. "Every time I call the FEMA number that they gave me, I get disconnected. I don't know what to say. I know one thing, I'm disgusted, and I'm full-blown depressed."

Like Posey, hurricane evacuees complained about the grinding bureaucracy at FEMA. Promises of prompt delivery of trailers have gone unmet. Calls to FEMA for help have been unavailing.

"FEMA is like a phantom organization: There's nobody to call," said Dave Segrave, 64, who built a makeshift patio outside his trailer on Vacation Lane in Waveland, Miss., a block from the beach.

His trailer, which arrived late last month, is surrounded by trees snapped in two and the scattered remnants of cottages that were swept from their foundations.

"We'd be in a hell of a mess if they weren't here," he added. "I just wish it worked better."

Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana's director of policy and planning, said that though FEMA certainly had a difficult task in providing housing to so many people, the agency has moved much too slowly. She said part of the problem is that the people in charge keep changing.

"In seven weeks, we had three different lead persons for FEMA" in Louisiana, she said.

But FEMA officials insist that the problems aren't entirely of their making. Some local governments have balked at allowing trailer villages in their areas, slowing the process of site selection for group trailer homes.

FEMA has also had to wait for local officials to reinstall electricity and sewer lines in some of the hardest-hit areas before the agency can deliver trailers.

An enormous task

"The bottom line is there [are] a lot of reasons why things didn't occur out there, and FEMA is a big name, so we get a lot of the blame," said agency spokesman James McIntyre. Among the biggest issues, he said, was simply the enormity of the task, which is unprecedented in the United States.

"This is not a federal takeover," he said. "We just can't go in and put trailers wherever we want."

As for complaints about being unable to contact FEMA, he said, "We had over 2 million people register for assistance, and they were all calling our call centers."

FEMA's trailer program is based on a similar, though much smaller, plan after Hurricane Charley in Florida in 2004. FEMA officials said they had learned from their mistakes and had refined the plans for Katrina and Rita evacuees.

Those lessons are on display on the outskirts of Baker, a Baton Rouge, La., suburb. There, 573 trailers are spread across 62 acres - complete with free meals three times a day, free laundry facilities, daily bus service to New Orleans and local stores, and a basketball court.

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