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Post-Katrina trailer residents fearful as eviction day looms

FEMA, having pushed back its deadline several times, says the last 4,600 dwellings must be cleared by May 30. But many occupants are poor, ill or elderly, with no place to go, housing advocates say.

May 06, 2009|Richard Fausset

NEW ORLEANS — Belinda Jenkins was picking up her diabetes medication Tuesday afternoon, and worrying about being away from the trailer she has lived in since Hurricane Katrina trashed her house.

Jenkins, a disabled 53-year-old, is afraid the Federal Emergency Management Agency is scheming to take the flimsy box away. So she keeps a handwritten note taped to the door, asking officials to at least call her cellphone so she can come back and get her stuff.

"Thank you," the note reads. "Have a bless day."

FEMA may not be so sneaky about it, but it definitely has designs on the trailer. About 44 months after the storm, the agency is now ready to shut down the most expensive -- and flawed -- emergency housing program in its history.

Federal officials, who have postponed the trailer deadline numerous times, say they have finally arrived at May 30 as the firm date for emptying the 4,600 remaining FEMA trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Jenkins and others recently received a letter from the agency stating that the trailer program technically ended May 1. The letter threatened legal action against residents if they are not out by the end of the month.

Even now, however, the program is proving difficult to end. Housing advocates say that many of those who remain in the trailers are among the Gulf Coast's most vulnerable residents -- the poor, the ill and the elderly. And they are worried the residents have few other options on a crippled post-storm landscape.

Last week, the co-chairs of the Louisiana Advocacy Coalition for the Homeless wrote to acting FEMA Administrator Nancy Ward, imploring her to extend the deadline to keep the residents from being thrown out on the streets.

Jenkins said she and her longtime boyfriend, a construction worker, can't afford the rents that have soared in New Orleans since the storm. Inside the stripped and gutted house behind her FEMA trailer, she pointed out a bed frame that her boyfriend recently brought in. She said he's been talking about sleeping there.

"I don't have no plan right now," she said, sobbing. "I don't know where I'm going to go."

The fate of these remaining trailer-dwellers has raised, perhaps for the last time, some fundamental questions about FEMA's response to this unprecedented disaster.

FEMA was initially criticized for its sluggish rollout of the trailers, and again when many of them were found to have dangerous levels of formaldehyde. But the sheer scope of the response remains staggering: The agency provided more than 143,000 households with temporary housing units in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Though federal law prohibited FEMA from providing emergency housing for longer than 18 months, officials repeatedly extended the deadline in acknowledgment of the scope of the destruction. At the same time, some local governments -- worried about blight and eager to move on -- used zoning and permitting rules to pressure trailer residents to get out of the units and into more permanent housing.

Clark Stevens, a FEMA spokesman, noted that the solution was always meant to be temporary. And in interviews Tuesday, a number of Louisianans agreed with FEMA's decision to end the program. Contractor Billy Griffin, 47, suspected that some people had grown comfortable in their free digs.

"Somehow they've got to be forced out of there," he said.

But housing advocates say a significant number of remaining residents are the victims of bureaucratic bungling and a housing market that still poses problems for the poor.

In Mississippi, 53% of those still living in trailers make less than $20,000 per year, according to data compiled in March by Gov. Haley Barbour's office.

Barbour, a Republican, has asked the federal government for 5,000 additional subsidized housing vouchers.

In Louisiana, housing advocates point to state programs that have done little to help. A much-touted plan to build tiny, permanent "Katrina cottages" -- funded with millions in federal money -- has not produced a single unit.

A $869-million state program, also federally funded, targeted more than 18,000 damaged rental units, but had resulted in fewer than 1,200 repairs by late March, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.

"With all the resources that have come down at our disposal, if we can't think of a way for these people to get into something better, then shame on us," said Laura Tuggle, an attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.

Louisiana has doled out federal rebuilding money to more than 90% of the remaining trailer residents. But that hasn't always solved their problems: Last summer, the nonprofit advocacy group PolicyLink found that two out of three Louisianans who received rebuilding money did not receive enough to cover needed repairs.

That is one of the dilemmas facing Nancy Hirschfeld, whose tiny house in Slidell was blown down in the hurricane. The disabled 67-year-old said the state gave her $28,000, which wasn't enough to rebuild.

Hirschfeld owns the land where her trailer stands, and she has numerous pets, including chickens and geese. These days, she is shopping for used trailers and preparing to move into a tent.

"What else am I going to do?" she said.

Belinda Jenkins said her household's application for rebuilding money was held up because it was unclear who held the title to her boyfriend's house.

A few minutes after returning with her prescription, Jenkins was met by a FEMA subcontractor's employee, holding a clipboard.

"I've just come to check on the trailer -- is it already vacant?" asked the worker, Joann Barrett.

"No," Jenkins responded. "And I'm so scared. . . . Please don't let them take it."

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richard.fausset@latimes.com

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