DEL RIO, Texas — Once he lived in a house; now he lives in a box. The box sits alongside other boxes -- all gray aluminum, all the same size, all facing the same direction -- like rows of dominos in the desert.
The box that Jose Luis Porras Jr. refers to is a mobile home. He's glad to have a roof over his head, "but check it out," he says. "Is there any other shape to call it?"
The home is in a village of 152 trailers, divided into two clusters on the outskirts of this border town west of San Antonio. The Federal Emergency Management Agency assembled the village in the fall of 1998 to house the hundreds of evacuees, like Porras, whose houses were destroyed by a tropical storm that drenched this normally arid corner of Texas.
The village was meant to be temporary.
Seven years later, the village remains, with no plans to dismantle it. And, most disheartening for Porras, he and his family remain, along with a dozen other evacuee families who have no means of getting out.
Porras, 41, has been following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and news of the FEMA trailer villages being built for Gulf Coast evacuees. His counsel in one sentence: Beware the word "temporary."
Del Rio, a city of 35,000, sits at the juncture of south and west Texas, a dot on a rolling plain of scrub and cacti.
The main reason people settled here is the geographic phenomenon of San Felipe Creek -- the outlet of an underground river that every day pours forth 90 million gallons of crystal-clear water. Del Rio, which means "of the river," refers to this ribbon of water wending through town.
On the day Tropical Storm Charley swept through -- Aug. 23, 1998 -- more than 18 inches of rain fell. The creek raged over its banks and flooded the city's poorest neighborhood, killing at least nine people (several remain missing) and destroying 600 homes.
"Only the porch was left," Porras recalls of the house where he was born and raised.
The Porrases and others were moved into a city shelter as FEMA went to work. It took two months to build the mobile-home village, which, like other FEMA compounds, was designed purely for function: unadorned structures arranged on a flat, treeless, colorless expanse.
The village, which sat off the main highway in a remote field behind an equipment rental company, was easy to miss. No signs pointed the way, and no formal entrances or exits marked the boundaries.
The Porras family -- Jose; his wife, Angie; and their children, Priscilla and Joe -- were assigned to Lot 39 in the cluster closest to town. Their mobile home was 14 feet wide, 56 feet long and had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, central air and heat.
Compared with the shelter, it was heaven.
For many evacuees, the mobile homes were in some ways a step up from their houses -- some little more than adobe shacks. The trailers were carpeted and came with refrigerators and ovens. Everything smelled new. The mattresses were still wrapped in factory plastic. Moving in, at least on that first day, represented a new start.
But as the years passed, the Porrases' gratitude wore away.
They missed their family home. It was small, but it had a yard with pecan trees and sweet grass and secret places where kids could hide and play. Everything had a history. The kitchen had a smell of years of family feasts. Even the messiness had character.
That house, Porras says, was a real home.
The Porrases couldn't get themselves to feel the same about their mobile home. Once the newness wore off, something else set in: The village began to take on the look of a rural slum, with broken windows, cannibalized cars in driveways and mangy dogs tied to dilapidated porches. A patina of silt covered the encampment.
Most of the evacuee families moved on, as the government intended, some taking their mobile homes after buying them from FEMA for a pittance. The government turned the remaining homes into low-income housing.
On a recent afternoon, Porras -- a compact, graying man with bloodshot eyes -- is outside working on his '94 Camaro. His right hand fiddles with something under the hood, his left clutches his 5-year-old daughter, Jacinda, who has known no other home than the one her father constantly refers to as "this box."
He hates living there, he says. It is no place to raise children.
Priscilla and Joe are now 18 and 13. The couple had Jacinda and Kimberly, 8 months, after moving into the village.
"Why we still here?" he says. "No place to go."
Del Rio, the seat of Val Verde County, is one of the poorest places in the Lone Star State, with about a quarter of its residents living below the poverty level. Sheep and goat ranching and light manufacturing related to nearby Laughlin Air Force Base generate some jobs, but unemployment runs high and the $12,096 per-capita income is far below the state average.