Katrina's Trailer Exiles
BATON ROUGE -- While life in Louisiana's capital -- now the state's largest city -- has long since returned to a semblance of pre-storm normal, the normality is deceptive, mainly because the abnormalities -- like some raving great-aunt no one talks about -- are hidden away. Thousands of displaced evacuees, not only from New Orleans but also from St. Bernard, Cameron, Vermilion and Jefferson Davis parishes, are still stuck in squalid, miserable, dangerous FEMA trailer "villages" -- the same camps that opened with such fanfare and rejoicing just a few months back.
Not only that, but there are two tiers of FEMA villages. The official ones, like the cheerily named Renaissance Village, with its approximately 1,500 residents in some 500 trailers, and the equally misnamed, if much smaller, Mount Olive Gardens, don't offer an awful lot in the way of amenities. But they do at least provide security, management, gates and, in the case of the giant Renaissance Village, a soon-to-be-opened, privately funded child care center.
The second-tier FEMA parks, alas, aren't quite as glamorous. These are the trailer camps that, because the Federal Emergency Management Agency had trouble buying enough land, have sprung up all over Baton Rouge in commercial trailer parks, like the unnamed one on Victoria Road, conveniently tucked behind a hooker pickup point, or another unnamed one off Greenwell Street, where I recently met a young mother named Lindley Rushing, her fiancé and her three nursery-school-age children.
Her ex-husband having abandoned the family and her fiancé being disabled by a recent accident at work (and eligible for exactly zero in either unemployment or health benefits), Rushing and her family are dependent on welfare and so poor that a family outing has to be planned days ahead to make sure that there's enough ready cash to pay for gas.
"Don't get me wrong," she told me. "I'm grateful that we're here -- there are families worse off than we are." But, she added, she can't let her children go outside because there is no safe or even reasonably clean place to play; the nearby park, popular with drug dealers, is littered with broken glass; the sound of gunshots punctuates the nights; and the psychotic man who lives a few doors down has a habit of banging on her door at all hours. Recently sewage backed up into her trailer, soaking the entire floor. She had to wash everything, which -- given that laundromat prices have more than doubled since the storms -- constituted a financial stretch. "We're middle-class poor people," she said.
She's not alone. Across the state, more than 200,000 people are living in trailers or unfinished houses, many still in tents in the front yards of their ravaged New Orleans homes, without insurance, health care, access to decent public schools or, in many cases, jobs. In fact, so many people are desperate to make their homes livable that FEMA is still delivering trailers to the New Orleans area. To date there are some 70,000 FEMA trailers in some 60 villages in Louisiana alone, with additional trailers parked in yards. And not a single one of those trailers is strong enough to withstand hurricane-strength winds.
What is strong enough for that is the so-called Katrina Cottage, a two-bedroom, aesthetically appealing house that can not only take 200-mph winds but is also cheaper than the travel trailers and, perhaps more important, built to last -- meaning that the Katrina Cottage can serve as a permanent dwelling.
According to Andy Koplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, some 80,000 rental units were lost in the state. FEMA's plan, meanwhile, continues to be finding more trailers. Which makes sense, because FEMA's job is in fact to provide temporary, emergency housing. To that end, the agency has declared that after 18 months, the villages will be shut down, the idea being that by then the 200,000 or so "temporary" residents will have found long-term housing solutions.
It's just too bad that, as early as October, when the "Katrina Cottage" first became available, no one had the bright idea to scratch the trailer solution (with its six- to-nine-month delivery schedule and $4 billion price tag) and go for one that might actually work. Whether the villages will empty according to schedule is doubtful, given that in Florida, residents hit by Hurricane Andrew were still living in FEMA trailers 10 years after the disaster.
Of course, people are working on long-term housing solutions: That's the business of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which is hoping to provide 36,000 to 50,000 affordable rental units, primarily in the New Orleans area. And that's because the vast majority of New Orleanians stuck in FEMA trailers are desperate to return to the place they still call home.
Jennifer Moses is a writer who lives in Baton Rouge.