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Hurricane Katrina

Fitful start to FEMA housing

About 300,000 new homes will be needed. The federal agency has provided fewer than 2,000 manufactured homes, and even those are not always welcomed.

By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
Published September 21, 2005

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Deanna Peterson and her son, Duston, 15, try out the trailer from FEMA they will call home once it's hooked up. They have been sleeping in tents in Waveland, Miss.

WAVELAND, Miss. - Deanna Peterson returned the day after Hurricane Katrina dumped 10 feet of water on her neighborhood. The house was a jumbled mess of insulation, sludge and mold.

She moved into a tent in the back yard, requested help at a nearby federal disaster center and waited.

This week, workers delivered a brand-new, white 29-foot travel trailer that smelled like a new car. It came with beige carpeting, fake wood paneling and air conditioning - tantalizing, but useless until another set of workers come to connect the utilities.

"We've been camping. It's been hard," said Peterson, 39, her skin glistening with sweat from the 90-plus degree temperature. "I was hoping to God that FEMA would do something."

FEMA has done something, but not nearly enough, say state and local officials.

More than three weeks after Katrina struck Aug. 29, hundreds of thousands of storm victims are living in shelters and cars, as well as homes destroyed by fallen trees, while thousands of brand-new mobile homes and trailers sit empty and waiting in staging areas across the Gulf Coast.

"I am so p------ off at the federal government right now," said James McGehee, mayor of Bogalusa, a small Louisiana town where half the houses are not habitable. "There is not the first temporary housing set up 22 days after the storm. The system is broken."

Problem after problem plagues the system set up by FEMA: The number of people who need housing is still unknown. The negotiations with property owners has proved time-consuming. Trailers and mobile homes must be moved one at a time across the country.

Things are moving so slowly that last week President Bush extended the deadline for moving people out of shelters into interim housing from Oct. 1 to Oct. 15. And now even that seems unlikely.

From the start, FEMA's solution to the housing crisis has centered largely on the use of manufactured homes. And from the start it has been an unpopular plan, criticized by local officials and housing experts for its cost, strain on local communities and potential to lead to poor, isolated neighborhoods.

FEMA plans to place 125,000 manufactured homes on 15,000 sites. Some smaller trailers will be placed in driveways. Larger trailers or mobile homes will be placed on large tracts of land across Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

Of the 1.3-million households affected by Katrina, about 300,000 need new housing. About 200,000 do not have insurance and need FEMA assistance.

More than 200,000 storm victims were being housed by the American Red Cross Monday night. But that doesn't count the unknown number of people staying with family or friends, renting hotels or living on the street.

FEMA officials say trailers and mobile homes are a last resort but it has quickly become the solution that will house the most people. Other people will be housed for free on cruise ships, military bases, hotels, apartments and rental houses.

But there is mass confusion about FEMA's housing solutions even among agency officials. They recite different numbers of what is needed and where.

Part of the problem is that federal officials lack answers to basic questions: How many displaced storm victims are there? Where are they located?

On Sept. 8, congressional estimates put the number of displaced households at 450,000. But James McIntyre, FEMA's spokesman for housing, said the agency doesn't know whether that number is accurate.

McIntyre said FEMA estimates it needs to house about 95,000 people in Mississippi and 5,000 in Alabama. Louisiana's governor, he said, has yet to provide an estimate. Just two days ago, FEMA estimated it would need 100,000 manufactured homes in Louisiana, but then scaled it back to 50,000 after it heard that thousands of people had left emergency shelters.

Trailers, 8 feet by 26 to 35 feet, are designed to house up to five people, including two on a dining table that unfolds into a bed. Mobile homes, 14 feet by 70 feet, have two or three bedrooms and are generally for families or the disabled.

As of last weekend, 1,100 travel trailers had been installed in Alabama, and about 200 each in Mississippi and Louisiana. Some sat empty, however, partly because people were waiting for workers to connect water, sewer and electric.

"I don't think they have enough trailers," said Elvina Campbell, who applied to FEMA more than a week before, but is still living at a Baton Rouge shelter. "Somebody's going to get left out."

FEMA is spending about $23-billion on housing and individual assistance, more than a third of the $60-billion Congress gave the agency for Katrina disaster relief. At least $3.6-billion has been set aside for mobile homes and trailers. The remainder is paying for other types of housing and emergency money, or has not been spent yet.

In Baton Rouge, one of the four staging centers for mobile homes and travel trailers set up across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, home after home - all standard white - are visible as far as the eye can see.

The 144-acre facility opened two days after the storm struck. Huge lights reminiscent of ballfields permit workers to go through the night, receiving, inspecting and shipping the homes.

The facility's inventory is 1,700 trailers, 300 of which are shipped out daily. But more come in than go out. A line of 100 truck drivers form outside to pick up a trailer and transport it to its destination.

Small parks are cropping up slowly. Ten homes were moved into Patterson, La., south of Baton Rouge. Another 22 in New Iberia, La. Another 125 homes are planned for Slidell, La., which lost homes for 10,000 to 12,000 households.

The trailers are moving out slowly, but the mobile homes aren't going anywhere at all.

McIntyre said FEMA is still locating sites for the homes and trailers - on government property, state parks or private property - leases for which need to negotiated with government or developers. Environmental laws, zoning ordinances and utility connections slow the process, he said.

"People just think we can load up travel trailers and take them and drop them off," McIntyre said. "Everybody is criticizing the effort but they are not doing the research. They need to help the system and stop screaming about it."

Reacting to complaints, FEMA officials insist they will not place 25,000 homes in single locations, as the agency had proposed. But the prospect of huge mobile home parks makes local officials anxious. Some worry about the strain on services; others fear blight.

Ronald Utt, a housing expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, said he was baffled by the federal approach because manufactured home communities are generally isolated from businesses, schools and jobs.

"You put all these communities filled with unhappy displaced people, and essentially you are creating public housing," he said.

In Waveland, a coastal resort community that lost 80 percent of its housing, Cindy Stiglet sits on a cinder block in the sweltering heat outside her demolished home on Rue de La Salle street. A cold can of Coke, a pack of Doral cigarettes and a cell phone lie on the ground.

FEMA delivered her new trailer three days earlier, but she is still sleeping at her mom's house because the workers haven't shown up to hook up the utilities. Inside, she already has some food, Kroger macaroni and cheese, and Little Debbie Devil Squares. At the sink are seven bottles of Purell hand sanitizer, a fixture in every home in the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast.

Down the street, a house is pushed off its foundation and caved in. Another has a spray-painted message showing that a couple and their two sons died in the flooding that came after the hurricane.

"We can't complain about FEMA," Stiglet said. "They came and did something."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 21, 2005, 12:39:53]


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