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Town Sets Sights on Quaint Alternative to `FEMAvilles'

Fearing trailers would lead to blight, the mayor is pushing for `Katrina cottages.' But the U.S. agency says it can't offer permanent housing.

March 06, 2006|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. — Mayor Connie Moran wanted something better for her city's hurricane victims than rows of generic government trailers.

She envisioned a neighborhood of "Katrina cottages" -- tiny yellow houses built in a Southern style, with sloped metal roofs and big front porches. They would be built with concrete foundations, not the tenuous straps and anchors that tether trailers to the ground.

A New York architect designed a prototype cottage and set it in the center of this coastal city, where it has been winning raves from locals. At 300 square feet, it's cozy, sleeps four, boasts ample storage and is covered in handsome siding.

A typical comment from passersby is "cute" -- a rare word on this storm-ravaged coast.

Today, however, the little house stands as a monument to the mayor's thwarted ambitions. Last month, officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected Moran's funding request for an 87-home pilot project on the east side of town.

The issue wasn't cost: The cottage could probably be had for about the same price as a trailer. The problem was that the cottage would be permanent -- and FEMA is not in the business of providing permanent housing.

Moran said agency officials explained to her that under federal law, FEMA can provide housing only on a temporary basis after a disaster. For many Gulf Coast residents, that means the loan of a trailer or larger mobile home for up to 18 months.

As a result, the spot where Moran envisioned rows of starter homes will soon be another post-Hurricane Katrina trailer park. Like dozens of other "FEMAvilles" in the region, it will be welcome for the shelter it provides, but dreaded for its potential to degenerate into a blighted slum -- that is, if it doesn't blow away in the next storm.

The mayor was crestfallen, and her disappointment reflects a wider concern emerging across the gulf states. Trailers are pouring in to house the homeless -- eventually, 135,000 will be installed in the hurricane-battered region. Though many are grateful for the multibillion-dollar effort, they are worried FEMA's reliance on trailers could spawn serious long-term problems.

It is a fear Moran describes in blunt terms. "FEMA," she said, "is creating trailer trash."

Some Gulf Coast officials suspect that the trailers won't be temporary. They point to lesser disasters that have spawned hastily improvised trailer parks that have lingered after the 18-month deadlines.

Today, about 2,000 temporary units in Florida remain occupied despite deadlines that have passed or are approaching, FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said. In Del Rio, Texas, a 152-trailer settlement remains occupied and in deteriorating condition seven years after a tropical storm.

Meanwhile, people whose houses survived Katrina are worried that the trailer communities would be dysfunctional, depressing real estate values and breeding crime and blight. Those kinds of not-in-my-backyard issues have complicated the delivery of trailers.

Moran was aware of some nearby towns' resistance to trailer parks. The situation is worse in rural Louisiana parishes, where local governments are struggling to absorb a large population of evacuees from New Orleans. In West Feliciana Parish, parents are protesting 20 trailers planned near their children's school. In Ascension Parish, a woman representing a neighborhood group has filed suit to throw out 50 FEMA trailers. Half of Louisiana's 64 parishes have said they will not allow any trailer parks, FEMA spokeswoman Andrews said.

"We from the outset had said we'd accept people," said Ascension Parish spokeswoman Betty Robert. "But ... have you ever seen those FEMA trailers? That's not conducive to any quality of life, you know?"

Moran wanted to minimize those kinds of problems in Ocean Springs. The city of 17,200 east of Biloxi dates to 1699. Its attractive downtown -- full of antique malls and sushi bars -- was largely spared by Katrina because French settlers built the original settlement on high ground.

Moran said about 700 houses were destroyed and the city was struggling to accommodate 600 trailers.

Though the prototype sits on the back of a wheeled trailer, the Katrina cottage melds nicely with the area's mix of 19th and early 20th century architecture. And for good reason: The concept for the house was hatched in October, when a group of nationally recognized architects met with Mississippi residents and asked what they wanted their rebuilt communities to look like.

Architect Marianne Cusato worked those suggestions into her design and unveiled the prototype in January at a builders' conference in Orlando, Fla. The cottage's traditional design was a hit with the crowd: Some of them told Cusato they'd like to buy one for a hunting cabin or mother-in-law apartment.

Moran said her embrace of the cottage was not based on aesthetic whimsy -- although she said the cottage's good looks would help win over neighbors.

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