FEMA trailers appear in some New Orleans front yards

March 22, 2006|By DOUG SMITH | DOUG SMITH,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW ORLEANS, La. -- The houses on Doerr Drive looked as though they could stand up to anything.

But their heavy stone facades offered little resistance when the floodwater spilled through St. Bernard Parish, bursting windows and filling the postwar frame houses to ceiling level.

For six months after Hurricane Katrina, this middle-income block east of New Orleans' famous Lower 9th Ward was deserted.

Then, early this month, its first returning owner moved in.

After six months in Mississippi, Carol O'Brien and her four dogs spent their first night at home on a street with no neighbors, no lights, no mail delivery and no trash pickup except the bulldozers that come by from time to time to remove the debris from houses that have been gutted.

For the next six months - or whatever it takes - O'Brien and her husband, James McPherson, who followed a few days later, will make their home in a white trailer installed by FEMA on what used to be their front yard.

They are among new pioneers in the New Orleans area, evacuees determined to stake their futures on the land they own. Their trailers, placed at their request in front of their damaged homes, are emerging as symbols of the will to rebuild.

New Orleans' most battered residential neighborhoods today are still scenes of wreckage unparalleled in America.

Block after block remain, like O'Brien's, unsightly tangles of fallen trees, dangling power lines, abandoned cars, and mounds of crumpled furniture and splintered building materials.

But as FEMA's sluggish emergency housing program has finally gained momentum, many blocks now have their first trailers, some have two or three and a few are nearly half filled - precursors of what much of suburban New Orleans might look like in six months.

Life in the 8-by-30-foot trailers isn't always materially better than the conditions evacuees endured in their post-Katrina travels.

Some homeowners squeeze their families in, or have two or three trailers crammed into adjoining lots for extended family members. Others live alone, separated from spouses and children in other cities.

Most of those interviewed in a two-day informal survey last week said they were turned down by the federal Small Business Administration for reconstruction loans and had no idea how they were going to rebuild.

The uncertain future did not dampen their homesteading spirit, though.

"This is home - too hard to just give it up," said O'Brien, 55, who raised her children in the house. "They asked me where I wanted my trailer. I said, `My property!'"

Since Katrina, FEMA has installed about 50,000 trailers in Louisiana, said spokesman James McIntyre. Some are in large villages, others in clusters wherever they fit, from commercial parking lots to vacant land. But about 42,000 are, by their occupants' choice, on property they own.

Compared with the 100,000 Louisiana dwellings destroyed or severely damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, that merely represents a beginning. FEMA still has requests for about 90,000 trailers.

New Orleans, where most of the damage occurred, has been slower than the rest of the state to get trailers in place. A spokesman for FEMA said there were about 7,200 trailers in Orleans Parish, nearly 6,200 on the owners' property.

Front-yard trailers are mostly showing up in middle-class areas where the homes are newer and sturdier, offering greater chances for renovation.

Almost none have appeared in the Lower 9th Ward, the city's oldest and poorest neighborhood, left in near-complete devastation by water spilling east from the ruptured Industrial Canal.

Streets there remain full of debris, including whole houses that floated off their foundations.

Several homeowners said they assumed they would just be paying as they went, no matter how long that took.

"I'm not doing anything with no loans from nobody, no government loans, no FEMA loans, no loans," said Dion Griffith, a city mechanic who moved into his trailer on Dreux Street last week.

Griffith said he still had an apartment in the Uptown area for his family while he stayed in the trailer to work on the house.

He figures the job will take at least 18 months, with him doing most of the work himself.

Doug Smith writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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