William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 30 Oct 2005 20:08:06 -0500


October 30, 2005

Government's plan to house evacuees called misguided, too costly

By Aaron C. Davis, Dogen Hannah and Chris Adams

Knight Ridder Newspapers

BAKER, La. - In the two months since this season's hurricanes swept the Gulf 
Coast, the federal government has spent almost $1.3 billion buying 95,151 
travel trailers to shelter evacuees - an effort many housing experts 
nationwide view as misguided and unnecessarily expensive.
The idea of purchasing tens of thousands of mobile homes and scattering them 
across four southern states in parks, on driveways and in temporary trailer 
communities is a critical component of the Federal Emergency Management 
Agency's massive assistance plan for the Gulf Coast.
The bills for creating the first big trailer park, built along a dusty road 
here 90 miles from New Orleans, are coming in and they're eye-popping: $22 
million to prepare the lots for 573 trailers. That's about $38,000 apiece, 
or more than twice the average price of each trailer.
Undeterred by the expense, FEMA is building 10 more trailer parks in the 
region, evaluating 79 potential sites and increasing its budget for park 
construction by hundreds of millions of dollars.
The agency's pursuit of its trailer-park plan comes as more than a million 
apartments sit empty across the South, prompting many critics to say FEMA 
missed a golden opportunity to house hurricane victims using the same kind 
of rapid-response rental voucher system that was used during a previous 
natural disaster.
"To be frank, I'm bewildered by what has gone on here," said Bruce Katz, a 
former official with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "There 
doesn't seem to be a plan that was really thought out in any significant 
Katz, who helped lead the government's housing response after a major 
earthquake near Los Angeles in 1994, relied on vacant rental units instead 
of trailers.
Criticism of today's temporary housing program has come from conservatives 
and liberals, who see the plan as costly and detrimental to hurricane 
victims' well-being. Beyond the fiscal cost is the social one: The trailer 
parks are likely to become crowded, remote and undesirable, giving residents 
little chance to conveniently tap into jobs or schools.
"I don't think it's the way to go," said John Weicher, a housing expert at 
the conservative Hudson Institute and a former Bush administration HUD 
Just to open the one park completed so far, the government had to run 
electric lines, sink telephone poles and build a sewage treatment plant. For 
the next 18 months - because the park was plopped down so far away from jobs 
and stores - the government will need to cook victims' meals and post 
security guards while they sleep.
And when it's all over the government will pay again - to tear it all down.
To be sure, the government's housing response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita 
has evolved, and different forms of rental assistance are now available. But 
in the earliest days of the crisis, the game plan established was heavy on 
trailers and light on rental vouchers - the opposite of what housing experts 
said should have happened.
FEMA says it turned to trailers because of how quickly apartments in 
Louisiana were snatched up by people who had the means to rent them - 
leaving trailers as one of the few ways to get temporary housing close to 
New Orleans.
While some trailers obviously would be necessary, housing experts said 
relying on so many wasn't realistic. The agency, they say, should have 
spread people around the region during the recovery, rather than try to 
build mini-cities in and around New Orleans.
In the days immediately after Katrina hit, FEMA scrambled to begin ordering 
the first of what could add up to 125,000 travel trailers from scores of 
dealers and manufacturers. The orders are the largest of their kind in the 
agency's history by a factor of six and could eventually be worth $1.7 
"They needed trailers and they needed them now," said Steven Burnett, owner 
of Candy's Campers near Scottsville, Ky. "At first, they couldn't get 
campers (from manufacturers). The only place you're going to get them is on 
dealers' lots."
FEMA snapped up 165 trailers from Burnett for about $3.3 million. It took 
just about everything available, from 17 to 37 feet long, and it wasn't 
particular about whether the models were bare bones or had luxury touches, 
Burnett said.
But by the time FEMA began placing factory orders it had become pickier.
Each trailer had to be about 35 feet long and include such things as a 
stove, bathroom, sink, heating and air conditioning. Each also had to 
include at least one double or queen bed and, with bunk beds or other 
accommodations, sleep up to eight people.
"They won't be anything fancy, but they will be livable," said Dave Knabel, 
general manager of Tom Stinnett RV in Clarksville, Ind. The dealership sold 
2,033 trailers to FEMA for a little more than $37 million.
So far FEMA has 16,029 occupied trailers in the hurricane-hit states of 
Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, mostly in commercial trailer 
parks, at state parks or on individually owned parcels. The first and so far 
only large-scale FEMA-built site to open is the one in Baker.
That pace falls far short of the 30,000 trailers every two weeks that FEMA 
initially expected to open after Katrina. However, FEMA spokesman James 
McIntyre said that was only a "goal the construction crews set for 
themselves," not a FEMA prediction.
The biggest problem has been finding places to put trailers, McIntyre said. 
"Thousands upon thousands of recommended sites came in, but once you do the 
site surveys, those sites are not suitable," McIntyre said.
That points to a basic flaw in FEMA's planning, housing experts say.
While the option of trailers is acceptable for a run-of-the-mill disaster, 
the number of homeless from the hurricanes was far greater than anybody had 
planned for. Indeed, FEMA said it didn't have a specific plan to deal with 
housing in the event that a worst-case hurricane hit New Orleans, despite 
long-standing worries that such a disastrous storm was inevitable.
Edgar Olsen, a housing economist at the University of Virginia, said the 
administration should have quickly set up a voucher program similar to one 
used after the Northridge earthquake.
A study on the federal response for Northridge, prepared by the Urban 
Institute for HUD, said the federal government "chose to intervene massively 
and quickly" to supply displaced residents with vouchers to rent apartments 
for up to 18 months. The report said government did so on the fly, but that 
the result was "timely, innovative and flexible."
In the South, census data show there are more than 1.1 million vacant rental 
units renting for less than FEMA's normal stipend of about $700 a month for 
evacuees, Olsen said, and vouchers could be used there or anywhere in the 
country. Three-quarters of the units are in the unaffected portions of 
Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or nearby states.
While vouchers are available for people already in federal housing programs 
and displaced families can qualify for monthly rental assistance for three 
months at a time, housing experts said a rapid-response housing voucher 
program would have helped families get in apartments far faster - and been 
far cheaper than using trailers.
"The apartment is already in the ground; it's already served by utilities; 
it already has streets around it," said Margery Austin Turner, the Urban 
Institute's director of the Center on Metropolitan Housing and Communities.
Vouchers as envisioned by most experts would be worth about $8,000 a year, 
depending on the city - far less than the cost of buying and setting up a 
trailer and housing people in hotels until the trailers are ready, as FEMA 
has been doing for the last two months.
It's hard to predict how much the trailers will eventually cost the 
government. Given the cost of setting up trailer parks, "this could be an 
endless money pit," said Katz, the former HUD official now with the 
Brookings Institution.
A FEMA spokesman said the agency doesn't know if it will need all 125,000 
trailers it's prepared to buy. So far it has spent about $13,600 per 
The agency also doesn't know how many trailers will be placed in 
government-built parks or how many parks it will build.
Still, FEMA raised the maximum value of its contracts to $500 million each 
for four companies tasked with finding and building places to put trailers, 
among other things, even though many trailers will wind up in relatively 
inexpensive commercial parks or on individually owned lots.
In Baker, the costs are already piling up.
So far, the federal government has already spent millions of dollars 
transforming a cow pasture on state prison land into the trailer town - 
complete with a 130,000-gallon sewage treatment plant, miles of utility 
connections and 40,000 tons of crushed limestone trucked in to build new 
The surrounding community of Baker has struggled to house evacuees, to teach 
an influx of children, and to build a police and fire substation to protect 
trailer residents.
All of the local agencies say they're seeking reimbursements for the costs 
from FEMA.
There are more costs to come. By building the trailer town in a remote Baton 
Rouge suburb, the government has cut off residents' access to everything 
from grocery stores to new jobs, meaning FEMA could be on the hook for their 
every need - from meal service to extensive bus transportation - for as long 
as New Orleans neighborhoods remain unlivable.
To be sure, the trailer park is a modern refuge, complete with running 
water, electricity, new fire hydrants, microwaves and freshly built 
basketball courts. And for evacuees who have spent weeks camped beside 
strangers in shelters, having a trailer door to close at night has provided 
a welcomed sense of privacy.
But while life in the trailer park may be a relative improvement, experts 
say the cramped 10-foot spaces between the trailers in Baker will soon 
become as claustrophobic as the shelters were. Crime will spike and domestic 
violence will rise, they say, as families remain out of work and helpless to 
improve their situations.
"They may be calling them `transitional housing units,' but if these trailer 
parks were anywhere else in the world they would be called displaced-persons 
camps," said Susan F. Martin, director of the Institute for the Study of 
International Migration and Georgetown University's Certificate Program in 
Refugee and Humanitarian Emergencies.
Said Frank Toussard, 52, who's been living in a travel trailer at Baker for 
a week with his wife and daughters, ages 8 and 11: "This is not a place 
where life gets back to normal."
Davis of the San Jose Mercury News reported from Louisiana. Hannah of the 
Contra Costa Times and Adams of the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau reported 
from Washington.

William Charles Tinker

New Hampshire Homeless  / Founded 11-28-99
25 Granite Street
Northfield,N.H. 03276-1640  USA
Advocates,activists for disabled,displaced human rights.