New Cottages Offer Hope to Mississippi Residents Still in FEMA Trailers

April 10, 2007

Renee McDaniel is not unlike many residents on the Mississippi Gulf Coast: Her home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, her family is packed into a government-issue trailer and her insurer paid just enough to replace the battered roof on her house.

The numbing discomfort of trailer life isn’t likely to end soon.

Only a quarter of the trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in three coastal counties will be replaced this year with cottage-style homes. And those homes will be distributed only through a lottery.

For the McDaniels, a cottage – if they’re lucky enough to win one – would make life seem normal again.

Bids on the cottages will be awarded to manufacturers by the end of this month, the same time frame the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency has allotted to hold the lottery.

Congress set aside $400 million for a temporary housing pilot program, and the federal government solicited bids from five states. Mississippi had the top two bids and is receiving $281 million for the construction of 4,500 cottages to serve as alternative homes for those in trailers. The cottages are expected to withstand sustained 150 mph winds, or a Category 4 hurricane.

“Travel trailers are just too small, and they are inherently unsafe,” said MEMA director Mike Womack. “There is a safer, more livable alternative that will be roughly the same cost (to the state) as the travel trailer.”

Currently, about 80,000 people are living in about 23,000 FEMA trailers in Mississippi. Every month, about 1,000 trailers are abandoned as families move into alternative housing. By the end of June, Womack anticipates there will be about 20,000 trailers remaining on the coast. By some calculations, that’s roughly 71,000 people living in trailers.

The cottages will come in two primary models.

The Park Mobile is the smaller of the two, at 340 square feet. A two-bedroom Mississippi Cottage is 700 square feet, the three-bedroom model is 850 square feet; both will include a stacked washer-dryer unit and central air conditioning.

“It could easily fit into some neighborhoods,” Womack said of the Mississippi Cottage.

Residents can live rent-free in the cottages for at least two years before they would have to purchase them at market prices.

A limited number of cottages will be ready for occupancy sometime after the June 1 start of the six-month Atlantic hurricane season. The remainder could be ready as early as October, barring any storm catastrophes, Womack said.

McDaniel, an assistant high school principal, husband Tim and daughters Dakota, 19, and Cheyenne, 12, who is autistic, share a 250-square-foot FEMA trailer.

She and Tim sleep on a convertible sofa in the living area, Dakota and Cheyenne share the master bedroom. Like many of those living in trailers, the McDaniels use the room with the bunk beds as a closet and pantry – clothes are shoved in the bunks along with pots and pans. She cooks outside because the kitchen is too cramped.

She’s not sure when their two-story wood-frame house, which remains the only one still open to the elements in their Biloxi neighborhood, will be rebuilt.

McDaniel, who didn’t have flood insurance because her house was not in a flood zone, received $14,000 from her insurer. It’s a story familiar to thousands of coastal residents who are fighting insurance companies, claiming they are owed money from damage that was supposed to be covered in their policies.

Furthermore, the McDaniels’ contractor, only days before he was scheduled to begin work on their storm-battered home in November, was diagnosed with cancer.

“When he got cancer …,” Renee McDaniel said as she shook her head in dismay, her voice trailing off as her eyes welled with tears. “I’m just hoping I’ll be in my house by Christmas.”

It’s been more than 19 months since Katrina lashed the Mississippi coast that morning of Aug. 29, 2005, and McDaniel can still see directly through her house – nothing but a roof and wood beams are standing.

As she descends the steps of her trailer, she’s reminded of the storm surge that encircled her house and chased her family to the top of the stairs. There they stayed for seven hours, watching the swollen Biloxi River pour into their living room like a bathtub filling up.

“The house was shaking and rattling,” McDaniel said. When the water subsided several small boats and pieces of a pier lay on her front lawn.

Two months later, the FEMA trailer arrived as a blessing. McDaniel could have taken her family elsewhere, to a rented home or an apartment, but “If it’s living in a trailer on my land, I would rather do it.”

Today, the trailer seems like a curse.

“At first it was OK because when you first move in you have nothing,” she said as she sat at the desk in her office, also located in a trailer parked alongside Mercy Cross High School. “As time goes on you start accumulating clothes, start getting some dishes, some pots and pans and food.”

As those items piled up, her frustration mounted – sharing such a small space, even if the others are family, was taking its toll.

If the McDaniels win a cottage in the lottery, it would help right their lives again.

“It would be closer to a home than this trailer is,” she said. “It would be like pulling up to a real house. It would look like normal because these trailers don’t look normal, not when you are in a neighborhood.”

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