'We Called It Hurricane FEMA'

Nicole Dumas of FEMA, left, talks with Carolyn Young about where she will live. Fifty-eight families at the Louisiana site were given 48 hours to move.
Nicole Dumas of FEMA, left, talks with Carolyn Young about where she will live. Fifty-eight families at the Louisiana site were given 48 hours to move. (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2007

HAMMOND, La. -- Shortly after noon, FEMA agents began rapping on the trailer doors, their knocks resounding inside the tinny white homes. Everyone in the park, the agents announced without warning, would have to pack and leave within 48 hours.

Where do we go now?

Why?

What about school?

To the residents of the Yorkshire Mobile Home Park, all of them families displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency crews offered answers that were uncertain and sometimes contradictory. As residents spilled out of their homes to meet their similarly bewildered neighbors, the adults wondered where they would be sent next, and how far they might wind up from their jobs. Some began sobbing. Then the children, seeing their parents' tears, began crying, too. A woman fainted, and an ambulance came.

"It was like shock and awe," recalled Ron Harrell, 40, a tenant. "We called it Hurricane FEMA."

The Yorkshire residents were eventually scattered to other FEMA parks. But their sudden evacuation last weekend illustrates the upheavals that still accompany life in a government trailer park 18 months after the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005.

About 12,000 households in Louisiana live in such settlements, temporary arrangements that only out of desperation are being stretched out indefinitely.

Almost all of the trailers' occupants were renters before the storm; unlike homeowners, they received no direct rebuilding assistance from the federal government. Some parks are rife with crime. Others are in isolated rural areas, far from schools and bus routes. Some trailers are in poor condition.

Park tenants are keenly aware that they are not particularly welcome where they have ended up. Fearing blight, many local communities have tried to block FEMA trailer parks, and several are trying to enact deadlines for the removal of trailers.

FEMA itself seems torn between closing the parks and serving the poor evacuees squeezed out by the scarcity of housing since the hurricane. Several times since Katrina, the agency has threatened to close the parks, only to grant an extension. Under the latest deadlines, tenants have until August to find other homes, but many seem unsure what they will do then.

"People say we shouldn't still be living in a FEMA park," said one former Yorkshire tenant, a Wal-Mart worker who wanted to be identified only as "P." "But take a look at the rents people have to pay in New Orleans now -- who can afford that?"


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