FEMA acknowledges possibility of longer trailer park stays

After insisting for months that it can provide only short-term assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is beginning to allow outside groups to plan for a longer future for its trailer parks.

FEMA and the nonprofit organization Save the Children jointly announced in July a plan to open a community center on the 450-trailer Diamond Group Site in Plaquemines Parish, La. -- the kind of space that FEMA has resisted providing at other sites. Save the Children and local charities will work with residents to secure child care and other social services, and to create play areas.

According to Barbara Ammirati, Save the Children's deputy team leader for Katrina response, the plan is to use the Diamond site as a model, with the goal of opening a similar center at a second trailer site this year and 10 by next fall. The agreement envisions ultimately opening community centers at 20 FEMA-run trailer parks for evacuees of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

That timeline itself is remarkable, because FEMA officials have long insisted that the agency's emergency assistance program has an 18-month limit. Theoretically, people are supposed to be out of their FEMA trailers by next spring. Social services advocates and local officials have urged the agency to recognize that the "temporary" housing will likely be needed for years, not months.

FEMA had refused to allow broad-use facilities in the trailer parks -- and even banned religious services at one point. Officials said they were bound by the 18-month time limit in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster and Emergency Relief Act, which provides the authority for federal disaster assistance to individuals.

But Darryl Madden, a spokesman for FEMA's recovery office in the Gulf region, said it has become clear that "the aid that we are providing is going to go well beyond 18 months." It will be up to policy makers to figure out how to make that reality fit within FEMA's legal authorities, he said.

The agreement with Save the Children contrasts with the experience of Rosie O'Donnell's For All Kids Foundation, which has been trying since Christmas to create a space for children at the Renaissance Village trailer park outside Baton Rouge. In December, the foundation donated three double-wide trailers for that purpose, but FEMA would not permit the group to set them up until liability and cost issues were resolved.

Nine months later, the foundation's blueprint for the area has grown, and it now consists of six large buildings for child care and other services as well as play areas and other amenities, all in a separate, fenced complex on the trailer park grounds. But it is still not open. Foundation officials say that a ribbon-cutting ceremony is imminent.

Ammirati said she hopes that the problems at Renaissance Village will not befall the project at the Diamond site. "We have gotten green lights every step of the way," Ammirati said. Local FEMA officials "have taken it all the way up to Washington, and no one has pulled the plug."

Madden said that FEMA, at first overwhelmed by the scope of the disaster, is broadening its view of the assistance that is needed. "Our hands are kind of tied with the level of services that we can provide," he said. "But if we can make this work simply by providing access [for private nonprofits], it is in the overall public interest to do it." Madden pointed out that the deal with Save the Children would involve no federal dollars.

Sister Judith Brun, a children's advocate who has been working at Renaissance Village since it opened last October, said that FEMA is more open to outside help. "We are definitely seeing a much more attentive posture on behalf of FEMA," Brun said.

As it becomes clear that people will be living in trailers beyond 18 months, "I have to praise FEMA for realizing that and not just sticking to their original position," she said. "Now that they are catching their breath, they are realizing there are other issues [beyond temporary housing] that people need to address in order to move on."

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