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New Orleans Rebuilders Camp at Home

Asked where she'd like FEMA's trailer parked, a returnee emphatically says, `My property!' Thousands of others are opting to do the same.

March 22, 2006|Doug Smith | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The houses on Doerr Drive looked like the kind that could stand up to anything.

But their heavy stone facades offered little resistance when the floodwater spilled through the town of Arabi in St. Bernard Parish, bursting windows and filling the postwar frame houses to ceiling level.

For six months after Hurricane Katrina, this middle-income block east of New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward was deserted.

Then, early this month, its first returning homeowner moved in.

After six months in Mississippi, Carol O'Brien and her four dogs, Honey, Lady, Tippy and Baby Girl, spent their first night home on a street with no neighbors, no lights, no mail delivery and no trash pickup except the bulldozers that come by from time to time to remove the debris from gutted houses.

For the next six months, or 12 or 18 -- whatever it takes -- O'Brien and her husband, James McPherson, who arrived a few days after she did, will make their home in a white trailer installed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on what used to be their frontyard.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 23, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
FEMA trailers -- An article in Wednesday's Section A said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency still had requests from Louisiana storm victims for about 90,000 trailers. About 50,000 of those have already been installed. About 41,000 are still needed.

They are among the modern pioneers in the New Orleans area, evacuees who are determined to stake their futures on the land they own. Their trailers, placed at their request in front of their damaged homes, are emerging as symbols of the will to rebuild.

New Orleans' most battered residential neighborhoods remain scenes of wreckage unparalleled in America. Block after block yields unsightly tangles of fallen trees, dangling power lines, abandoned cars, mounds of crumpled furniture and splintered building materials.

But as FEMA's sluggish emergency housing program has gained momentum, many blocks now have their first trailers, some have two or three, and a few are nearly half-filled with the barracks-like structures -- a precursor of what much of suburban New Orleans might look like in another six months.

Life in the 8-by-30-foot trailers isn't always materially better than what the evacuees endured in their post-Katrina travels. Some homeowners squeeze their families in, or have two or three trailers crammed onto adjoining lots for more relatives. Others live alone, separated from wives and children in other cities.

Most of those interviewed in a two-day informal survey last week said they had been turned down by the federal Small Business Administration for reconstruction loans and had no idea how they were going to rebuild.

The uncertain future hadn't dampened their homesteading spirit, though.

"This is home -- too hard to just give it up," said O'Brien, 55, who raised her children in the house. "They asked me where I wanted my trailer at. I said, 'My property!' "

Since Katrina, FEMA has installed about 50,000 trailers in Louisiana, spokesman James McIntyre said. Some form large villages, others are in clusters wherever they fit, from commercial parking lots to vacant land. But about 42,000 are, by their occupants' choice, on property the tenants own.

However, compared with the 100,000 Louisiana dwellings destroyed or severely damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, that represents only a beginning. FEMA still has requests for about 90,000 trailers.

New Orleans, where most of the damage occurred, has been slower than the rest of the state to get trailers in place. A spokesman for FEMA said there were about 7,200 in Orleans Parish, nearly 6,200 of them on the tenants' property.

Frontyard trailers are showing up mostly in middle-class areas where the homes are newer and sturdier, offering greater chances for renovation.

Almost none have appeared in the Lower 9th Ward, the city's oldest and poorest neighborhood, which was devastated by water from the ruptured Industrial Canal. Streets there remain obstacle courses of debris, including whole houses pushed off their foundations.

In many older neighborhoods, such as New Orleans' 7th Ward, the houses were built close to the sidewalks, meaning there is little space for trailers. That hasn't stopped some residents from moving back.

Marie Cordier squeezed her trailer into the side yard of her mother's house on Touro Street, where she grew up.

Three years ago, Cordier bought her own house around the corner. She's set on fixing them both.

"I plan on coming back for good," she said. "This is where I grew up at."

After Katrina, Cordier and her extended family of 25 left New Orleans in three cars, making temporary homes in Hattiesburg, Miss., Houston and Dallas before her name came up on the list for a trailer.

She said she used her insurance payout to retire her mortgage.

"I didn't want to give the city no idea that they can take my property," Cordier said.

But she said she had been denied a reconstruction loan from the Small Business Administration. At the moment, she has no idea how she will fix the houses, which have rotting wallboard inside.

"I just say my prayers and I am content," she said. "I just have to go to work and do as much as I can."

Several homeowners said they assumed they would just pay as they went, no matter how long that took.

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