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DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Gulf Coast Blues DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Gulf Coast Bluesn the year since hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf coast, untold billions have been spent bringing emergency relief to displaced residents, clearing away debris, and rebuilding levees and canals. Yet today 400,000 from Louisiana still remain displaced, 200,000 from New Orleans alone. Tens of thousands of homes in the city remain flood-damaged and abandoned. Many did not have flood insurance. Homeowners battle with insurance companies. State officials are still reluctant to commit a significant portion of federal housing money to low- and moderate-income families. For most of the year Congress fiddled as residents in the region struggled with an unparalleled housing crisis.

Leading relief efforts has been the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a once well-managed and independent agency that was reorganized as part of the Department of Homeland Security. With professionals and experts pushed aside, it has become a favored grazing ground for Bush administration cronies and political hacks. As of mid-June 2006, FEMA alone has spent $19 billion on emergency relief to victims, of which Congressional auditors now claim at least $2 billion (nearly 11 percent) represents wasteful, unjustified, or fraudulent spending. But this is only part of the story. Most of the money spent has been on massively expensive and gravely flawed plans to shelter evacuees in mobile homes and travel trailers.

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One of the most visible examples of the federal government’s gross mismanagement of post-Katrina relief efforts is the vast parking lot of nearly 11,000 mobile homes stored at the airport in Hope, Arkansas. This “field of dreams” contains nearly half of the 24,976 manufactured homes purchased by FEMA at a cost of $857.8 million in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.1 Other units are stockpiled at the Red River Army Depot in Texas and at six other sites set up around the country by the Forest Service. However, it is unlikely that these homes – including most of those stored at Hope – will, or indeed can, ever be used to provide emergency housing for Gulf coast residents.

In fact, it is something of a mystery why FEMA acquired so many mobile homes in the first place. Even the smaller models are generally too big to install on the driveways or in the front yards of hurricane damaged homes, especially those in urban areas. FEMA guidelines governing the size of the homes it acquired were developed to satisfy requirements of commercially operated mobile home parks, which often accommodate homes up to fourteen feet wide by sixty feet long (the so-called doublewide). However FEMA is not able to set these homes up in trailer parks either. The agency’s own regulations, as well as those in Katrina-affected states such as Louisiana and Mississippi, explicitly prohibit the installation of mobile homes that do not have permanent foundations in flood plains (which includes most of the hurricane-affected areas). Thus, for practical as well as regulatory reasons, these mobile homes really have no particular place to go.

No surprise then, that a February 2006 report by the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security found that FEMA, contrary to all good management practices, did not have a plan in place for how any of the mobile homes would be used before it actually purchased them. Because of the prohibition on mobile homes in flood areas, FEMA anticipates using no more than 4,600 of them for hurricane relief in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama (as of March 2006 a total of 2,300 had been installed in those states). Since most of the ordered homes have already been delivered, it is, of course, too late to terminate the contracts.2

Currently, FEMA is paying $300,000 per year on a two-year lease for the Hope site alone. FEMA also paid $272,000 to build an access road to the site and pays $58,000 to every three months to maintain the road. Perimeter security costs an extra $136,000 a month. The inspector general also found serious inventory control and site maintenance problems. For example, the FEMA official at the Hope site said that he did not know how many homes would be delivered on any one day and was unable to reconcile vehicle identification numbers with the bills of lading. Consequently there was no way to assure FEMA was receiving what it had ordered. Some units arrived damaged from the manufacturer. In addition, units at the site are sinking in mud as a result of heavy rainfall, and the steel chassis on the larger homes are beginning to warp due to improper storage on trailer hitches without adequate support. FEMA also paid $272,000 to build an access road to the site and pays $58,000 every three months to maintain the road. FEMA now plans to spend an additional $6 million on gravel to prevent the homes from sinking further into the ground.

It is ironic that this particularly senseless and profligate example of government waste comes at a time when, in addition to the need for emergency housing in the South, there is a growing housing crisis in the country at large. While developers continue to build expensive suburban estates for the wealthy (one recent development in Lafayette, Louisiana, even aims at a meticulous re-creation of historical residential New Orleans, complete with imitation deluxe Garden District mansions and blocks of Creole cottages!), affordable housing for the less well-to-do is in increasingly short supply. With real wages stagnant or falling, working people find it increasingly difficult to get into the housing market and face rising rates in the rental market.

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The growing number of homeless in the country now includes not only working poor who, while they have jobs, simply cannot afford a house or apartment, but also military veterans recently returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, federal funding for low-income housing has been severely cut during the past thirty years, and cash-strapped cities and communities now find themselves increasingly responsible for providing affordable housing, housing grants, and housing for the homeless, the disabled, and other disadvantaged populations.

Even if it is not possible for FEMA’s mobile homes to be used for immediate Katrina relief, common sense suggests disposing of them in a way that helps ease the country’s housing crisis. After all, 25,000 mobile homes wisely deployed could improve living conditions for as many as a 100,000 people. With this in mind, Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota contacted FEMA to suggest the agency release the Hope trailers to provide housing and additional schoolrooms in his state’s poorly served Native American communities, where an estimated 90,000 families are underhoused, and 30 percent of households severely overcrowded. The answer was no.3 Then again, the government’s own Homeless Veterans Program, which describes housing costs in places like New York as “very tough,” services clients who could no doubt put any number of mobile homes to immediate good use.

But FEMA’s own plans for its housing stash, such as they are, seem depressingly lackluster, vague, and tone-deaf to the rising tide of housing-based ills sweeping the land. FEMA proposes giving oversized units to the General Services Administration to be donated to other federal agencies that have a need for them. Other units, it says, may eventually be repositioned to disaster distribution centers closer to the East Coast, while the remainder will be kept on hand to support relief efforts for the current hurricane season. As things stand, the cost-benefit ratio of this particular government purchase remains extraordinarily low.

In addition to emergency housing programs operated by FEMA, federal housing policy also has implications for those displaced by Katrina. In a move that promises to prevent many thousands of poorer families from returning to New Orleans, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced in June 2006 plans to demolish, without replacing, more than 5,000 public housing apartments in New Orleans. As longtime affordable housing advocate Bill Quigley notes in his aptly titled piece “HUD to New Orleans Poor: ‘Go F(ind) Yourself (Housing),’” such a plan will reduce the city’s stock of conventional public housing to just 2,000 units, down from more than 7,000 before the hurricane. This will expedite the shift to HUD-mandated HOPE VI “mixed-income” residential developments. These urban renewal schemes, however, have a poor record in both New Orleans and elsewhere in making up for the number of conventional public housing units typically lost when the new units are built.

Quigley urges marooned city residents to join a class-action lawsuit recently filed on their behalf. According to international law, Katrina victims are “internally displaced persons” who have the right to “return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence.” The government is thus obliged to facilitate, not hinder, the return and resettlement of all those displaced by disasters such as Katrina, including renters and public housing occupants.4 Given the current administration’s record on fulfilling international legal obligations, it is hard to see how this will happen.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Gulf Coast Blues

While FEMA’s impulse purchase of thousands of unusable mobile homes is additional evidence (if you need it) of the agency’s starring role in the tragic theater of federal relief dysfunction, it is small change, literally and figuratively, compared with the massively expensive and bureaucratically cumbersome emergency housing program the agency did implement in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita. To assist those left homeless by the hurricanes, FEMA might have used a voucher system to house people in the million or more empty apartments scattered throughout the South at the time. While vouchers might have been a relatively cost-effective solution and allowed individuals and families access to already existing amenities, such as schools and shops, it would, however, have located many far away from their damaged homes and familiar communities.

The main thrust of FEMA’s emergency housing plan in the aftermath of Katrina has been to provide travel trailers to individual homeowners requesting one for placement on their property, as well as to build temporary trailer parks at designated sites to accommodate non-homeowners and other displaced residents. The scale of the housing problem it faced soon forced FEMA to expand options to include cash payments and hotel and apartment vouchers as well as cabins on cruise ships moored on the Mississippi. However, travel trailers continue to occupy center stage in FEMA’s temporary or interim housing plan. Homeowners can live in them as they undertake repairs or rebuild. Agencies and organizations can use them to accommodate relief personnel, construction workers, college students, and the like, and FEMA can construct trailer parks to house remaining groups of displaced residents.

Travel trailers are smaller, lighter, and cheaper (and a good deal less sturdy) than mobile homes. Thirty-five or so feet long by eight feet wide, and weighing approximately 6,000 pounds, the typical metal travel trailer provides barely 240 square feet of living space. Unlike mobile homes, however, they do not require special hauling permits, can be towed by pickup trucks, and are small enough to fit on the driveways or in the front yards of most homes in the affected areas. Hundreds can be assembled together to form compact trailer park communities. Their principal attraction, to FEMA if not to those actually condemned to live in them, is that travel trailers are not “structures” in terms of local building codes, hence not explicitly banned from flood zones.

With an emergency housing plan calling for storm victims to be housed in travel trailers, the government wasted no time and within two months of Katrina and Rita had spent an additional $1.3 billion buying 95,151 travel trailers from scores of dealers and manufacturers across the country (the order may eventually top 125,000 units). FEMA also set about spending a great deal of money preparing sites as trailer parks, some of which were never, or barely, used. For example, at one site in Baker, Louisiana, ninety miles from New Orleans, the agency spent $22 million to prepare the lots for 573 trailers, which at about $38,000 a piece is nearly three times the average price ($13,600) of a trailer. Initially some parks were placed far from amenities, such as shops and schools, forcing additional expenditures on essential services for those so housed.

High cost and wasteful spending are not the only problems associated with FEMA’s travel trailer plan, or indeed other aspects of its emergency housing efforts. Renovations for a shelter at the former Fort McClellan Army base in Alabama cost $7.9 million, but only ten evacuees ever showed up and FEMA shut the facility within a month.

As with mobile homes, FEMA rules require trailers to be mounted on blocks and hooked up to water, electric, and sewage utilities before certificates of occupancy can be issued. As one bemused New Orleans resident reported, six separate contractors were needed to install a trailer on his property in the Lower Ninth Ward. FEMA also requires trailers to be secured to the ground with metal straps. However, owners who install units on their own often neglect this elementary precaution. So secured, the trailers are supposedly stable in winds up to 75 mph, although they remain vulnerable in storms to flying debris, particularly from adjacent damaged properties. Of course, the irony is that FEMA’s installation rules and requirements effectively transform travel trailers into semi-permanent mobile homes – structures otherwise banned from flood zones because they lack proper foundations.

While establishing stockpiles of trailers appears to have been relatively easy for FEMA, actually getting the trailers to the many thousands of individual homeowners who requested them has been more of a challenge. Masses of bureaucratic red tape are one obstacle. Then there is the problem of incompetent subcontractors, many with no experience in delivering or installing travel trailers, but who were still paid for inept work. As with other FEMA projects and services, virtually all the work related to its travel trailer program is contracted out to private companies. One large prime contractor signs contracts with second-tier contractors who in turn subcontract to third-tier contractors and so on, with each contractor taking a cut before any real work gets done. Additionally, electric utilities have also been slow to provide services, often reluctant to restore potentially unprofitable connections to scattered and isolated customers.

Six months after Katrina, only half of the 135,000 requests for emergency trailers had been filled. In Louisiana, 60 percent of requests had not been met. In Orleans Parish, only 3,000 of 21,000 requested units had been delivered. In adjacent St. Bernard Parish, where virtually every home had suffered flood damage, 6,000 of 8,000 requests remained unfilled. Officials became so desperate that they symbolically “liberated” nearly 300 units from a local stockpile, installing them directly on residents’ lots. Across Lake Pontchartrain in Slidell, one official described the continuing trailer problem as “an individual human tragedy.” Police and other critical workers were still without emergency housing months after the hurricane, forced to sleep with friends or neighbors, or in the office.5

Additionally, FEMA is finding it difficult to provide temporary housing to displaced residents who are not homeowners (the majority of those displaced in New Orleans were renters). Local authorities throughout the Gulf region have rejected placement of trailer park sites in many neighborhoods or have engaged in protracted negotiations as to where they might go. Throughout Louisiana and especially in New Orleans itself, residents’ groups and local officials have taken action to prevent FEMA from setting up trailer parks intended to house displaced residents from New Orleans, the overwhelmingly majority of whom are poor and black. Indeed, by the end of 2005, thirty-two of Louisiana’s sixty-four parishes had banned construction of FEMA trailer parks in their jurisdictions.

In one case, residents of upscale Lakewood Estates in the Algiers section of New Orleans successfully prevented FEMA from completing a trailer park there for single women and their children left homeless by Katrina though all building permits had been approved and considerable work done on the site. Declaring the proposed site unacceptable, Mayor Ray Nagin (who had previously approved it) claimed FEMA had “bullied” city workers (presumably into granting building permits) and the contractor had “disrespected” citizens. He promptly suspended construction at all other trailer parks in the city as well.6 Three weeks later Nagin was re-elected mayor of the embattled city. Frequent NIMBY-style disputes over the location of so-called FEMAVILLES, as well as the war on public housing mentioned above, suggest that the struggle over the future social and racial makeup of New Orleans will be protracted and bitter. Indeed, the extent to which interim and temporary housing is made available to those who are not homeowners will have a critical impact on just what sort of city will be “brought back.”

Nearly a year after the storm, a new twist is emerging in the travel trailer saga. According to a report in the Times-Picayune, as many in the region still wait for travel trailers, or, like residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, have only just begun receiving them, others are having trouble getting FEMA to retrieve trailers that are no longer needed. Especially in those suburban areas around New Orleans where hurricane damage was less severe, residents who have completed repairs and moved back into their homes are naturally eager to get now-unwanted trailers off their properties in advance of the impending height of a new hurricane season. As many of them are discovering, trailer removal is almost as frustrating a process as trailer delivery.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Gulf Coast Blues

According to FEMA, residents wishing to “deactivate” their trailers must call the agency hotline. An inspector is then dispatched to take an inventory of contents and check the condition of the trailer. Once that is done, FEMA issues a work order for removal of the trailer, which is then shipped to a staging area in Mississippi for cleaning and delivery to families still waiting for temporary housing. Even with masses of roving inspectors making almost monthly visits to check on trailers in place (many are hired by giant contractors such as the Shaw Group that dominates the travel trailer program in the area), homeowners are surprised to be told that it might take anywhere from three weeks to six months to get trailers removed.7

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Gulf Coast Blues

A year after Katrina, tens of thousands of families in the Gulf region – 113,000 at one recent count – face an uncertain life, as well as a new hurricane season, crammed into 240-square-foot travel trailers. They discover the layout and amenities of the travel trailer – galley kitchen, cubbyhole bunk beds, minuscule toilet facilities, floor and ceiling just an arm’s reach apart – have more in common with pleasure boats tied up at the local marina than the spacious homes to which many are accustomed.8 As Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi recently told a Senate panel, recreational campers “are not designed to be used as housing for a family for many months, much less years.” Yet that is precisely what FEMA intends and what in many cases they have become. For example, five members of a family in Hancock County, Mississippi, after five months in a FEMA trailer encampment, eventually moved into a trailer on their own property; if all goes well with rebuilding, they hope to be able to move back into their house by the end of 2006.

One concern is that trailers do not provide “even the most basic protection from high winds or severe thunderstorms, much less hurricanes and tornados.” Even Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has expressed concern that these lightweight trailers, which remain the backbone of FEMA’s emergency housing plan, are in serious danger from flying debris and other projectiles. With most of these potential “flying tuna cans” situated next to the ruins of what was once a much more substantial home, a major fear of officials is that residents might be tempted to tow their temporary trailers off-site during any future hurricane evacuation, a move that may create an even greater hazard.9

Another concern is that trailers expose occupants to formaldehyde, a toxic gas that can cause immediate and long-term health problems and is a known carcinogen. Tests conducted by the Sierra Club found that levels of the gas, released from the plywood and composite wood in trailer interiors, are nearly equal to what a professional embalmer would be exposed to at work. A class-action suit has been filed in Louisiana against the federal government and travel trailer manufacturers alleging that FEMA-supplied trailers are a “clear and present danger” to those living in them.10

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Gulf Coast Blues

Perhaps these problems and issues help explain why many displaced homeowners apparently have not opted for living in a trailer. Indeed, as a visit to any of New Orleans’ still-ruined neighborhoods reveals, although damaged and unoccupied homes extend for block after block in all directions, relatively few of them have trailers parked outside. Of the trailers in place, only a handful appear to be functioning as primary full-time residences. Others look as if they are used only when owners are actively undertaking repair work. Many are now unoccupied or perhaps have never been occupied at all; weeds and grass grow up around them. With trailers scattered here and there along increasingly overgrown and degraded streets, and with neighborhoods still lacking amenities of all kinds, including schools and hospitals, trailer living is clearly not for the faint of heart, the elderly, or families with young children appealing only to committed urban pioneers or the truly desperate.

Those among the displaced who find trailers impractical might prefer to live in a “Katrina Cottage,” a 300-square-foot traditional structure designed by New York architect Marianne Cusato. Cheaper to make than mobile homes and better looking than travel trailers, “Katrina Cottages” are built with fiber-cement siding and come with pitched, crimped metal roofs and attractive front porches. When no longer needed, they can be usefully incorporated onto properties as guest houses or work studios. Model parks are being built in Mississippi and Louisiana to display the cottages.11 Perhaps FEMA will see fit to mark the anniversary of Katrina by putting in an order for 24,976 of them.

FEMA’s emergency housing program is shaping up as one of the most expensive and wasteful parts of its hurricane relief operations. Despite spending billions of dollars, little progress has been made over the past year in restoring many damaged residential neighborhoods, and more than 100,000 residents are still displaced. The deeper problem here is not so much the catalog of fraud and waste that can be compiled but the underlying doctrine of “competitive sourcing” by which the Bush administration hopes to privatize services traditionally supplied directly by the government. Corporations big and small line up to sign lucrative “no bid” contracts in order to take over government relief efforts, a development already apparent in the running of the war in Iraq, where food, mail, and laundry services as well as security for diplomats and others are outsourced to private vendors. The swarm of lobbyists settling in on K Street in Washington, and the attendant scandals of political corruption, are visible signs of this dramatic shift in the nature of government.

Only on the first anniversary of Katrina is real federal money for home rebuilding beginning to arrive in Mississippi and Louisiana. In a departure from previous government policy, payments of up to $150,000 will be made directly to individual homeowners who will be free to decide whether and where to rebuild or relocate. In Louisiana, those who sell and leave the state will get less than those who stay and rebuild, although that does not have to be in the old location. Those who should have had insurance but did not will have their grants reduced.12 In New Orleans, where there is no city plan in place to direct rebuilding, individuals will have to make their own determination as to whether it is worth rebuilding in the old neighborhood. (An earlier proposal, which would have restricted redevelopment of certain flood-prone areas and encouraged it in neighborhoods where significant numbers of residents indicated a willingness to return, appears to have succumbed to political expediency.) With many of the financial obstacles to rebuilding removed, homeowners will also be at the mercy of unscrupulous and unlicensed building contractors. For non-homeowners who cannot find a place to rent, the FEMA trailer will become more and more a permanent home.

Whatever the next year brings, it is likely that the travel trailer along with its unfortunate mate, the mobile home, will continue to occupy a prominent place in the physical and mental landscapes of displaced Southerners for some time to come. Designer/buidler magazine

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Gulf Coast Blues
  1. FEMA also purchased 1,295 modular homes at an additional cost of $40 million. Modular homes are constructed on site from components that arrive 90 percent complete from a factory. They are customizable and come in a variety of styles ranging from capes, ranches, and split-levels to two-story homes. Mobile homes are more generic, factory-made dwellings made up of one or more sections built on an integral chassis, then towed to sites that are often in commercially operated trailer parks.
  2. Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Mobile Homes and Modular Homes at Hope and Red River” (Report Number GC-HQ-06-12), February 17, 2006.
  3. David Melmer, “FEMA: Trailers Not for Indian Housing Shortage,” Indian Country Today, June 13, 2006.
  4. Bill Quigley, “HUD to New Orleans Poor: ‘Go F(ind) Yourself (Housing),’” www.truthout.org, June 18 2006; and “Ten Months After Katrina: Gutting New Orleans,” www.truthout.org, June 29, 2006.
  5. Jennifer Steinhauer and Eric Lipton, “Storm Victims Face Big Delay to Get Trailers,” The New York Times, February 9, 2006.
  6. Adam Nossiter, “FEMA Trailer Park Fails to Survive Storm from Residents,” The New York Times, April 5, 2006.
  7. Kate Moran, “Trailers Take a Turn from Blessing to a Curse,” Times-Picayune, July 3, 2006.
  8. Dan Barry, “Lives Suspended on the Gulf Coast, Crammed into 240 Square Feet,” The New York Times, June 14, 2006.
  9. Eric Lipton, “Trailers, Vital After Hurricane, Now Pose Own Risk on Gulf,” The New York Times, March 16, 2006.
  10. Mike Brunker, “Are FEMA Trailers ‘Toxic Tin Cans?’” MSNBC.com, July 25, 2006.
  11. Angelle Bergeron, “‘Katrina Cottage’ Provides Alternative to FEMA Trailers,” Architectural Record News, March 16, 2006.
  12. Leslie Eaton, “Hurricane Aid Finally Flowing to Homeowners,” The New York Times, July 17, 2006.

James Dickinson teaches in the Sociology Department at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. His essay "Still Swept Away: New Orleans Four Months After Katrina" appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Designer/builder.