Push Is on to Rid Louisiana of FEMA Trailers

March 14, 2011

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is pushing to get rid of the last 424 of its trailers still in Louisiana more than five years after Hurricane Katrina struck the state, leveling towns and flooding New Orleans.

The agency has sent letters to hurricane victims still living in the trailers, saying they must leave the temporary housing units by April 30 or face fines and possible eviction. The majority of the remaining trailers are in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, places hit hard by Katrina.

Some trailers are left in western parts of the state, an area severely damaged when Hurricane Rita slammed into Louisiana about a month after Katrina.

The FEMA trailer became a symbol of the prolonged rebuilding from Katrina and Rita. After the storms, there were about 92,000 trailers in Louisiana.

People still in the trailers say moving out won’t be easy.

“I had 12 feet of water in my house, and I have a lot of repairs, plumbing repairs, that need to be done,” said Cynthia Powell, a 55-year-old unemployed mother in New Orleans.

She and her daughter Chevel Powell use their partly rebuilt family house, but said it has not been hooked up to natural gas and has no hot water. They said getting the gas turned on would cost more than $1,000, a hefty sum for the poor family.

The mother and daughter each was assigned a trailer to live in with their children. They said they sleep in the trailers parked in an empty lot next to the house.

“There are a lot of people who need these trailers,” Chevel Powell, 36, said.

The Powells told a story common in New Orleans: They said they were unable to get money through the federal rebuilding fund administered by the state, the Road Home program, and that repairs to their home have been slow.

They said the trailers have served them well. “Somebody says it’s like living in a shoe box,” Chevel Powell said. “But it beats living on the streets.”

FEMA has extended the trailer deadline several times, continuing housing help for hurricane victims.

Now FEMA has decided it’s time to pull the plug on the trailers. FEMA is warning that it will start charging people $800 a month unless they move out by May and legal action could be taken to force people out.

The agency says it will help people find other housing.

“As we help the last remaining households transition into permanent housing solutions, FEMA housing advisers will continue working with our state and local partners, voluntary agencies to leverage all resources that can help these survivors find long-term housing solutions,” Rachel Racusen, a FEMA spokeswoman, said.

Meanwhile, New Orleans is pushing hard to get the remaining 168 FEMA trailers out of the city. The city is threatening to fine people $500 a day for not moving out. The city is warning trailer residents that they are in violation of city zoning ordinances and that waivers granted after Katrina will not be renewed.

Lance Hill, executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research, a race relations center based at Tulane University, said state and federal governments failed to help hurricane victims adequately.

“I’m sympathetic to neighborhoods that consider FEMA trailers eyesores five years after Katrina, but as long as we deny people the possibility of rebuilding homes that were destroyed by the failure of the federal levee system, driving them out of their homes makes no sense,” he said. “The policy should be to make them whole again.”

The trailers and mobile homes sent to the Gulf Coast were plagued with problems, including elevated levels of formaldehyde. A 2009 Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report said the air in many trailers registered dangerously high levels of formaldehyde and that FEMA was too slow to get people out of the trailers after it learned of the problem in 2006.

FEMA and its contractors shipped about 203,000 mobile homes, travel trailers and other models to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, two of the worst storms in U.S. history. The hurricanes destroyed more than 300,000 homes in 2005 and displaced about 700,000 people.

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