Housing the Displaced Is Rife With Delays

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By Spencer S. Hsu and Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 23, 2005

Nearly four weeks after Hurricane Katrina displaced more Americans from their homes than any event in at least 60 years, efforts to find housing for 200,000 families from the devastated Gulf Coast are getting bogged down, according to federal, state and private sector officials.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials complain of a drastic shortage of sites suitable to state and local officials for the huge trailer parks that FEMA hopes to establish for evacuees. Local and parish leaders say FEMA's plans to supply the trailer parks with water, sewer, electricity and other services are haphazard or nonexistent, and the encampments -- some of which could include 15,000 units -- are bigger than any the agency has ever established.

Builders of manufactured housing say red tape has bottlenecked contract orders, which may take as long as 12 months to fill. Congress is considering a new program to offer housing vouchers to the displaced. Meanwhile, planners from Baton Rouge, La., to Washington fear there is no government-wide housing strategy, and no one is certain how many displaced families will return to the Gulf Coast.

In the confusion, White House planners are weighing in, according to agencies involved in the talks. But delays are compounding what some housing advocates call a slow-motion replay of the bureaucratic divisions that crippled the emergency response for days after Katrina hit.

"We seem to be in this new state of chaos," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "Nobody's on message, because everybody's got their own message."

In New Orleans last week, President Bush vowed to clear shelters by mid-October. "We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes" to help rebuild the region, Bush said.

Huge amounts of federal money are already flowing. Congress has approved $23 billion for temporary housing and individual relief aid.

Authorities say they are losing a race against time to provide temporary housing for the months or years it will take to rebuild New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities.

The task is enormous. Federal officials told Congress on Sept. 8 that as many as 1 million people were displaced by the storm and 450,000 families were homeless, figures that echo assumptions in a FEMA hurricane planning exercise last year.

In reality, the numbers are far more murky. FEMA now estimates that 300,000 families are homeless, and 200,000 will require government housing. But the manufactured housing industry says it will take six months to build 40,000 trailers. Of 600 trailer sites proposed so far, only 5 percent have ready access to water, sewer, power and other services.

On Tuesday, 22 days after Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast, aides to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) asked FEMA to move as many as 50,000 people from shelters into hotels and motels for as many as 90 days. The stop-gap measure is needed to meet Bush's goal while officials debate how and where to establish trailer cities -- or other options for evacuees -- and who will pay for them, said Jerry Jones, state director of facilities and planning.

"We just don't have the time to develop new temporary housing communities," Jones said. "We need to get them out of these shelters. . . . We don't want to just warehouse our people."


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