FEMA works to keep trailer parks temporary

BAKER, La. -- At Renaissance Village, a massive emergency trailer park on the outskirts of Baton Rouge that houses some 1,600 evacuees from New Orleans, FEMA briefly banned religious services last month. That seemingly callous move speaks volumes about some of the challenges that the Federal Emergency Management Agency faces: It's trying to run a makeshift town that it wants to shut down after 18 months, and it's providing services to people who it hopes will move away even sooner.

For the "mayor" of Renaissance Village, FEMA manager Michael Cosbar, the church issue is just the latest trailer-park headache that his agency did not anticipate and is ill-equipped to address.

Ever since FEMA set up this community in October to shelter victims of Hurricane Katrina, religious charities have been active. Cosbar, who oversees most of the agency's trailer communities in the state, says he was unaware that Christian groups were regularly leading Bible study classes and holding Sunday school and other religious services.

After learning about the religious activities, he announced on February 16 that FEMA would no longer allow them. An independent evangelist named Pastor Judah, who had parked his 40-foot motor home on the site and was handing out tracts and praying with residents, was told to leave.

"If we let one group do it, we'd have to let every group do it," Cosbar explained. During a tour of the site in late February, he said that church groups were welcome to transport residents to services elsewhere and that residents could invite members of the clergy into their trailers to pray. But the park should be considered a "gated community," he said, generally off-limits to outsiders, including clergy wanting to hold services in its one common area.

Residents protested: "When they take God away from you, they've taken everything," said James Waller, vice chairman of the trailer park's citizens' council. Complaints soon reached agency headquarters -- and the White House. Within a week, FEMA scrapped the ban.

Instead, Renaissance Village now has a sign-up sheet for any resident who wants to schedule an event of any sort for the park's single public gathering space, an unheated 60-by-30-foot canvas tent erected by local charities. FEMA officials say they had not grappled with the church issue before because they don't generally set up a "community tent" when they provide emergency housing. The sterile, treeless "park" was not designed to have a gathering space, because it is meant to be temporary.

Welcome to Mr. Chertoff's Neighborhood, where the landlord -- Secretary Michael Chertoff and his Homeland Security Department -- provides only the bare necessities and operates the property with the intention of chasing the tenants out.

Although many of the evacuees come from areas of New Orleans that have not even begun to rebuild, and although most observers expect them to stay in the park for years, FEMA maintains that it will strictly follow federal rules: The trailers are temporary housing. The government provides evacuees a trailer, water and sewer lines, and electricity. Residents must now get pretty much everything else on their own or from a charity. FEMA does not want anyone to get too comfortable here.

After any major disaster, FEMA is the federal agency charged with providing temporary housing to displaced people. Its officials read that mandate very narrowly -- they will supply housing, and little else, for as long as 18 months while people get back on their feet. Typically, the agency must provide for just a few hundred or a few thousand people. But in the wake of Katrina, FEMA is sheltering tens of thousands of evacuees and providing assistance on an unprecedented scale.

Renaissance Village is the largest of the approximately 65 FEMA-run trailer parks in Louisiana. Agency officials insist that by April 2007, all the residents must find another home, find a new job or return to an old one, and generally resume their pre-Katrina lives. But an outsider walking through the rows and rows of trailers meets hundreds of people whose homes are gone and are unlikely to be rebuilt any time soon, whose workplaces were wiped out, and whose lives seem permanently shattered.

FEMA has distributed some 48,000 trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana, in a variety of ways. Its preferred approach is to give a trailer to an individual homeowner so family members can live in it on their own property while rebuilding. FEMA also parks its trailers in empty spaces in commercial trailer parks. The agency's least favorite option is to cluster its trailers where they can be hooked up to an existing or newly built sewer system; FEMA has set up about 300 group sites in Louisiana and runs about one-fifth of them. Some sites house merely a handful of employees from a particular company. But Renaissance Village is nearly 600 trailers strong.

New Orleans wants to open a FEMA site for almost 1,000 trailers in City Park, but neighbors object. Scores of FEMA trailers are sitting empty, and thousands of evacuees remain homeless because of similar objections. Regardless of the government's euphemisms -- group site, village, gated community -- this slapdash suburb is basically a refugee camp. And a lot of folks just don't want a refugee camp in their backyard.

Location, Location, Location

In the last days of August, as Katrina's victims fled toward Baton Rouge, government officials and charitable groups established emergency shelters in churches, municipal buildings, and anywhere else they could find room. When it became clear that tens of thousands of people in short-term emergency shelters would not soon be going home, the question of where to house them became urgent.

In late September, FEMA began building its first group trailer site in a 62-acre cow pasture owned by the Jetson Correctional Center for Youth, a juvenile prison. Crews working around the clock took three weeks to lay sewer and power lines, and to install about 575 trailers ranging in size from 18-foot units for single individuals to 40-footers for large families.

FEMA opened the gates of what it dubbed "Renaissance Village" on October 6. The trailer park runs along Groom Road, a narrow, pitted strip of asphalt that is slated for widening this summer and that is about a mile off the main thoroughfare here in Baker, a town of just under 14,000 people on the northern edge of Baton Rouge. Local officials approved the site.

Baker Mayor Harold Rideau said, "I don't have any regrets" about hosting the trailer park. "We did what we did because it was right." But that doesn't mean it has been easy. The Baker fire department soon tired of responding to calls at the park and declared in December that it would no longer come unless FEMA ponied up for the extra costs. The agency agreed to pay Baker about $400,000.

But Chief Danny Edwards said that, as of March 1, the department still did not have the money, despite answering about 100 calls at Renaissance Village, 25 percent of the department's total for the five-month period. Between October and January, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Department responded to 165 calls at the village.

And that tally does not include the first four weeks, when a deputy was on the site full-time. "We intend to submit a bill to FEMA," said sheriff's office spokesman Fred Raiford. "Whether they will reimburse us, who knows? We don't have a formal agreement, but they said, 'Keep your receipts.' "

Despite its fancy name, Renaissance Village is little more than a barren grid of metal trailers separated by gravel roadways. Patches of new grass sprouting between trailers are the only natural greenery. Some residents have landscaped their lots with potted plants from the local Wal-Mart but, otherwise, little distinguishes one trailer from the next -- beyond the black-and-white numbers pasted to their sides that serve as an address: C-10; J-18; F-9. The overall effect is "compound," not "community."

Few children are anywhere in sight. According to FEMA, the park has nearly 600 residents under age 18, but not many of them play in the dusty streets. Resident Anita Richardson says, "A lot of our kids in this trailer park are under a tremendous amount of stress. There are a lot of children, but you don't hardly ever see them. Even in the afternoon, you don't see the kids. They get off the bus, and they go home, and that's it. It scares me that kids don't go out -- even when it's sunny." Many trailers have aluminum foil or paper taped over their windows, perhaps for privacy, perhaps to keep the world at bay.

Social services providers also worry about the invisible young people. Sister Judith Brun, a former Catholic school principal who is now a child-services advocate for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, says she is very concerned about a potential rash of child abuse, because parents and children are cooped up in small spaces. Many kids are skipping school, she said.

FEMA allows local school officials to come into the trailer park to search for truant schoolchildren. Because parents can be evicted for failing to keep their children in school, some kids caught by truant officers have refused to provide their names. So now, FEMA requires residents to carry ID badges at all times and has threatened to kick out any child found without an ID.

Sister Judith and other advocates for the poor had hoped that FEMA would build a model prefab community -- with schools, public spaces, and a sense of hope. On a rainy morning in February, she gazed sadly across the shuttered trailers. "We were going to have a model city out here. It could have been life-giving."

FEMA's Michael Cosbar is sympathetic but says his hands are tied. "I see individuals who have needs, but we can't provide them for them. There is nothing in the Stafford Act that says that we can offer them assistance beyond what we can offer." The act, which governs federal disaster assistance to states, is quite clear, he said: FEMA can offer housing assistance for 18 months, and that's about it. "That's the law, and we have to follow the law. And it wasn't FEMA who set it up. It was Congress."

Food, Faith, and Propane

The Stafford Act indeed spells out in detail what disaster aid the federal government may provide to individuals: It basically limits help to temporary housing, to cash assistance for home repairs, and, in some cases, to funeral, dental, or other emergency needs. At Renaissance Village, FEMA initially provided more than the act required.

Taking away the extras, such as propane, has caused some of the agency's biggest headaches. Richardson remembers the joy of being escorted to her new trailer: "When I came to my trailer, there was a beautiful basket of cookies and treats and chips, and sheets and pillows. And everything was just here waiting for me. The welcome was laid out."

FEMA installed a water and sewer system for the park and provided the propane for heat, hot water, and stoves -- until February 1. Residents now have to pay for their propane, at a cost of $25 to $35 a tank. Richardson, whose four-bedroom house was destroyed by Katrina and who now shares a two-bedroom trailer with her husband and five children, says that the family burns through more than a tank a week.

When FEMA announced it would no longer pay for propane, residents went ballistic. Many are on government assistance. Some lost their jobs as well as their homes in the storm. And most came from houses or apartments in New Orleans where they had never used propane for anything but a barbecue grill. How would they know how to hook up the tanks, to use the gas efficiently? Would the senior citizens in the park survive a frost without heat?

Beyond the actual cost of propane, FEMA's announcement upset residents because it contradicted what many say they were told. According to Richardson, "They said to me, 18 months free. No utilities, no nothing. Free." That's a common refrain in Renaissance Village. Residents believe they were promised 18 months of free living, with all expenses paid. FEMA is now reneging on the deal, they believe, although everyone has a different story about how this promise was made, and no one seems to have proof of it.

Cosbar insisted that FEMA never promised any such thing. Even though the Stafford Act says that FEMA is not to pay for utilities, the contractor FEMA hired to build the park initially provided propane through a subcontractor because "it was an emergency situation," he says. The residents were never promised that the propane would last forever, he stresses.

The free food service is likewise coming to an end. The Keta Group, the contractor that helps manage the site for FEMA, has been serving three meals a day out of a double-wide construction trailer. That service is scheduled to stop on April 6. FEMA typically does not supply food when it provides housing, but the government made an exception, Cosbar said, because Katrina "was considered an emergency situation. People had lost their homes; thousands and thousands of people had lost their homes. They didn't have money; they didn't have anything, so the food service was put in, initially."

In the beginning, Keta served 3,000 meals a day, Cosbar said, but that number had dropped to 600 or so by the end of February, because people had begun using the kitchens in their trailers. Nicol Andrews, a spokeswoman in FEMA's Washington headquarters, points out that people living in other FEMA trailers around the state do not get food or propane and that FEMA's mandate does not extend to providing a full range of human services. "Our goal is to get people back on their feet," she said "not to make them whole again."

Because of the local attention that Renaissance Village has attracted as the largest and most visible outpost of evacuees, its residents have received a number of services that most other Katrina victims have not gotten. A medical trailer visits regularly to provide prescriptions and other health care services; a state-chartered nonprofit organization has established an on-site center for coordinating social services; and residents (whose trailers do not have phone lines) have been given free cellphones by T-Mobile.

Cosbar says that FEMA is actively recruiting charitable organizations to provide similar services at other group sites, but The Washington Post reported last month that area charities have already burned through about two-thirds of their Katrina funds.

By some measures, the residents of Renaissance Village have been a bit spoiled. In December, Sister Judith recalls, so many charities were bringing gifts that "we were forcing stuff on these people." One donor said that her church brought turkeys on Thanksgiving, even though the stoves in the trailers were probably too small to accommodate them. "There have been so many donations," Cosbar said, "there comes a time where you have to say, 'Enough is enough.' "

People living in the collection of smaller trailer sites 5 miles away, along the fence line of the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, get far fewer extras. Together, these newer sites have nearly as many trailers as Renaissance Village but have attracted much less assistance from charities. At one airport site, staff members pointed to the empty space where a community tent might someday go and joked that at least the park offers free entertainment: Residents can watch airplanes take off and land all day.

Despite FEMA's contention that private charities need to help, the agency does not always cooperate when do-gooders answer the call. Rosie O'Donnell's For All Kids Foundation has committed $3 million to provide services for children displaced by Hurricane Katrina. In mid-December, the foundation delivered three double-wide trailers to Renaissance Village to serve as an after-school care/early-childhood education complex. By Valentine's Day, the trailers still sat where they had been left; FEMA would not let the foundation hook them up.

The foundation sent in two set-up crews to places that Keta had told it the trailers could be placed, but both times those plans got changed and the set-up crews had to go home, according to foundation officials. FEMA officials said that the trailers' placement had to be negotiated to clarify cost and liability issues. On February 22, two months after the gift trailers arrived, FEMA signed an agreement accepting them and allowing the foundation to set them up.

Planned Obsolescence

Under current policies, people who apply to FEMA for assistance are given whatever aid is most appropriate or most readily available -- hence the now-ubiquitous FEMA trailers. Even so, most observers of FEMA's Katrina response, including the White House's review panel, have concluded that large-scale emergency trailer parks are a bad idea.

Communities hesitate to permit them. Social services agencies believe they create inhospitable environments. Members of Congress argue that they waste government resources by setting up structures that will just have to be removed later. In late February, the White House panel that assessed the government's response to Katrina concluded that in future disasters the Housing and Urban Development Department, not FEMA, should take the lead in sheltering refugees and that "the provision of trailers should not be the default means of temporary housing offered to all evacuees leaving shelters."

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown, who lost his job after Katrina, said of FEMA's trailer parks, "They've been a bad idea for 20 years." Brown added that, before Katrina, he had requested funding for an in-depth study of alternative approaches to emergency housing, but Homeland Security never approved his request.

Scott Wells, FEMA's federal coordinating officer for hurricane recovery in Louisiana, told a Senate committee in December that the government pays $30,000 to $40,000 to purchase and install each trailer and that evacuees would be better off if FEMA just gave them cash. "Temporary housing is not cost-effective or customer-oriented," he said.

The trailers might be sold when FEMA is done with them, but it's hard to envision them bringing much money. Most were not designed for long-term living, and they are likely to need major repairs before they can be reused.

Nevertheless, with so much of Louisiana's housing stock destroyed, trailers remain the quickest answer to FEMA's housing shortage. The government will probably open additional mega-sites before the recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is complete. FEMA is likely to spend about $4 billion overall on trailers, said agency spokeswoman Andrews. What's more, given the difficulty in getting local officials to accept FEMA trailer parks, the agency will try to cram as many trailers as possible into any approved site.

"What I fear," said Randy Ewing, interim director of the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps, the nonprofit group set up by Gov. Kathleen Blanco to coordinate state, federal, and private humanitarian assistance, "is [that] we will be left with thousands of people living in trailers that are dilapidating, and we will have the worst slums in America."

Ewing and officials of other nonprofits in Louisiana have said that government should erect emergency housing with an eye to longer-term -- even permanent -- occupancy. "For what we are spending for these travel trailers and their location, for just a little bit more," he said, "we can go to modular manufactured facilities or houses that could be spaced out a little bit more, look at green space: Create neighborhoods."

The only community space at Renaissance Village is the tent donated by the anti-poverty group Share Our Strength. The tent hosts meetings, events for children, health fairs, and, now, religious services. But the village has no playground, no park bench, no dining hall. Meals prepared in the Keta kitchen are served in plastic foam containers and carried away. FEMA's approach "gives you no way to create social fabric in that environment," said Sister Judith, who adds that she had to hector FEMA for weeks for a liability waiver that would allow the tent to remain on site.

FEMA counters that there is no point in developing a community setting, because nobody is supposed to live in the park long enough to make it a real community.

"You have to maximize the use of the space," Cosbar said. "Yes, it would be great to be able to make it more a village, but also, consider that this is temporary housing. I have to underscore that. We are not expecting people to be here forever. It's not as though we are turning a blind eye to that, but for the sake of getting people out of the situations they're in, they have to get these parks put together as quickly as possible and populate them as quickly as possible." Andrews agrees: "We want to discourage planning any kind of permanence" for the trailer parks.

Besides, FEMA has no legislative authority to construct long-term housing. Congress would have to rewrite the laws to allow FEMA to think beyond 18 months. But, Ewing argues, "the government needs to take a more long-term approach. I don't think that anybody who has been here longer than 10 minutes believes that we will be completely through with the job, or anywhere near there," at the end of 18 months. Nobody at FEMA wants to speculate on what will happen at Renaissance Village in April of next year, but the official line is that any remaining residents will be evicted.

Perhaps some people will never leave, though. Bob Hebert, director of recovery for Charlotte County, Fla., said 300 occupied trailers remain in a FEMA park outside Punta Gorda that was created after Hurricane Charley crashed into Florida's Gulf Coast 18 months ago. FEMA has extended housing there for an additional six months, Hebert said, and is considering charging the remaining residents rent or just handing over control to the county. But the stragglers -- at its peak, the site had 571 units -- might be hard to move.

Many work but do not make enough to rent or own in the region, particularly since Charley's devastation drove up housing prices. Others are elderly people on fixed incomes or have disabilities that make it hard for them to find or pay for other housing. Public housing units in the area are still being rebuilt. A third slice of the trailer population consists of what Hebert calls "system-gamers," people who have lived on government handouts for years and will continue looking for ways to do so.

The lesson of Punta Gorda, according to Hebert, is that FEMA "shouldn't be building any trailer parks with more than 25 or 50 units on them." Large collections of trailers take up so much space that they must be placed on big tracts of land on the outskirts of town, often far from services and jobs. "There is no social system, no community center in the park where people can gather, no churches, no schools," he added. "You have isolated these people."

Hebert gets three or four phone calls a week from local officials in Louisiana who are seeking advice about setting up trailer parks and who fear they may be re-creating the crime-infested slum that Punta Gorda's FEMA City has become. But "the interesting thing," he says, "is that FEMA has never asked us what we thought."

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