Gulf Coast trailer-dwellers may soon get the boot

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 31, 2009

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The only thing keeping Gerard Rigney from getting back into his home is the FEMA trailer in his front yard.

It needs to vanish so his plumber can redo the piping into the house, which was damaged by Hurricane Katrina’s flood waters almost four years ago. After months of calls and letters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency saying his days in the trailer were numbered, he can’t wait to get rid of it — even if it means living in an unfinished house.

‘‘I’m grateful I had this. I would’ve been at the mercy of friends and strangers without it,’’ the 65-year-old stagehand said from his trailer’s front steps — a day before FEMA’s Saturday deadline for him and thousands of others to leave their federally issued travel trailers and mobile homes or face possible repossession. ‘‘But I don’t wish the FEMA experience on anyone.’’

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Mobile home and trailer dwellers like Rigney were given several extensions to finish rebuilding homes or find more permanent places to stay. Those who stayed on or past May 1 were given notices to vacate. And it appears the deadline is going to stick after FEMA told residents they would ask the U.S. Department of Justice to help get them out of the units that have been the only stable homes for many people since hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in 2005.

With a new hurricane season officially beginning Monday, an estimated 3,400 households affected by those storms remain in trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi — far fewer than the roughly 20,000 in the two states a year ago.

David Garratt, FEMA’s acting deputy administrator, told a House subcommittee on May 22 that it could take several months for any ‘‘evictions.’’

FEMA has repeatedly assured state officials that the situation would be approached on a case-by-case basis. Agency spokesman Clark Stevens said FEMA is working with federal, state and local agencies to help residents transition into long-term housing. He said ‘‘new options’’ are being finalized and ‘‘no one will face eviction from a temporary unit while transition measures are implemented.’’

This isn’t the first effort to get rid of trailers. Some communities have enacted bans, hoping to spur reinvestment by removing one of the last vestiges of the storms. In New Orleans, officials have tried to balance recovery needs with sensitivity to residents ripped off by shady contractors or who are otherwise unable to finish their homes.

This week, about 760 units remained in the city, largely in slower-to-rebound areas. In neighborhoods like Lakeview, which has come back more strongly than some others, it is rare to see a trailer. They can be spotted, like the sporadic remnant tattoos of search and rescue teams on empty buildings, among the signs of moving on: road work, rebuilt houses and spacious, green yards or ready-for-development lots where homes once stood.

FEMA estimates that more than $7.8 billion was spent on housing and other aid for about 2.4 million storm-affected individuals and households since the hurricanes.

Additionally, Louisiana’s Road Home program, meant to buy out or help hurricane-affected homeowners rebuild, said it has disbursed $7.9 billion in awards. In Mississippi, about 1,865 households are in ‘‘Mississippi cottages,’’ that state’s version of temporary housing. It is not under deadline.

More than 1,100 households have bought, or are awaiting closing on, their FEMA trailers, according to Garratt’s written testimony.

State officials appear to be more comfortable with the situation than in the past, when they led the call for trailer extensions. Christina Stephens, a Louisiana Recovery Authority spokeswoman, said officials believe there are more rental options available and more rebuilt homes than even a year ago. The state also has gotten up to $2 million to essentially help connect trailer residents with programs that can help with home repairs or deposits for apartments.

Still, some advocacy groups worry about more people being made homeless.

The trailer deadline ‘‘lacks basic compassion’’ and ‘‘will make a mockery of the Gulf Region recovery promised by President Obama and Congress,’’ the US Human Rights Network said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., acknowledged the trailers were only supposed to be a temporary option.

‘‘But we cannot simply eject people from bad housing when they have no better options. We cannot turn our backs on the victims of this disaster,’’ Landrieu said, adding that she appreciated Obama administration efforts to work on long-term housing solutions.

Jacqueline Frederick’s voice cracked Friday as she talked about her uncertain future. She said she and her husband, Anthony, hadn’t been able to get subsidized housing to get out of their trailer in Davant, in the toe of the Louisiana boot — and away from the storm-vulnerable coast. The house they were living in washed away in 2005, and a family fight kept them from getting a Road Home rebuilding grant. The home wasn’t insured.

‘‘I’m extremely stressed out and tired of fighting,’’ the 56-year-old said. ‘‘I feel like I’m being a victim all over again, again and again.’’
Shelia Byrd contributed to this story from Jackson, Miss.