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?
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?"
The evacuation of Yorkshire March 3-4 had its roots in the three-way political and legal wrangling among the site's owners, local officials and FEMA. That tension is mirrored across Louisiana and Mississippi, where scores of trailer parks have opened since Katrina.
Before it was emptied, 58 families lived at the Yorkshire park. Their trailers were arranged on either side of a gravel road in a rural area about an hour north of New Orleans.
Under a contract initiated the month after Katrina, owners Frank Bonner and Ken Albin were to get $42,700 per month in rent from FEMA.
The residents began arriving about six weeks after the storm.
Eventually, some found jobs as aides for the elderly or the mentally retarded, some as workers at Wal-Mart, and some as housekeepers. Some are disabled. Many are single mothers.
The appearance of such parks in Tangipahoa Parish, as elsewhere, was not entirely welcome. For months, Tangipahoa officials sought to slow the growth of FEMA trailer camps. At one point, parish President Gordon Burgess called on Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) to intervene with FEMA.
Trailers "were moved in the middle of the night," Burgess explained. "People woke up and they'd have a FEMA site next door."
At about the same time FEMA and the property owners were fighting over the terms of the contract, the owners clashed with the parish over approval for their trailer parks.
A newspaper article appears to have precipitated the mass evacuation. Two days before the evacuation, the Daily Star of Hammond published a story about the latest power outage at Yorkshire. It was the third in recent months, the newspaper reported, and it happened because the electric bill had not been paid.
Owners Bonner and Albin, who are responsible for the bill, which ran about $15,000 a month, blamed FEMA for not paying rent on time; FEMA officials have said they paid promptly after they were invoiced.
"Quite frankly, we received press earlier that week that pointed the finger at FEMA for not paying the bills. We were getting beaten up," said Jim Stark, director of FEMA's Louisiana Transitional Recovery Office. "At this point, we said, 'Enough is enough.' "
The park would be evacuated, and quickly, FEMA officials decided. Officials began telling tenants to pack up even before the agency had decided where they would go.
FEMA told residents and reporters that the people had to be moved for their own protection: The agency feared another power outage, officials said, and the trailer park's sewage system, which sometimes smelled, posed a health hazard.
But at the time of the evacuation, the power was on, the bill paid. State health officials deemed the sewage plant, for which the owners are responsible, free of violations, according to Brian Mistich, who oversees state inspections in the area. Although some complained of the stench from the plant, state officials said some odors from the facility are unavoidable -- and legal.
In an interview Friday, Stark said he made the decision to vacate the park based largely on the possibility of more power outages. Although many residents said they were told they had to leave within 48 hours, Stark said it was not meant as a deadline.
"Could we have done a better job on this? Absolutely," he said. "We just wanted to be out of there."
Nearly all tenants interviewed said there was no reason to have moved, or at least no reason to have moved so suddenly.
Several tenants fought back tears last week as they explained why they would rather be back at Yorkshire. Even those who said the park did at times stink preferred it to their new location.
Shametha LaFrance and her five children were moved from Yorkshire into another FEMA mobile home, where, on the second day, the toilet backed up and the water stopped running.
Darcelin Turner, 49, was relocated to a trailer in Belle Chasse, more than an hour away. She commutes every morning to bring her children to their school in Hammond; she does not want to transfer them again.
Several others who moved to a site near the Hammond airport said that the new park is crime-ridden and that they would prefer to be back at Yorkshire. Out of fear, they said, they venture outside less and keep a close watch on their children.
"They took us from bad to worse," said Lekesha Vernon, 27, a mother of two, one of those moved to the site near the airport. "But when you have no other place to go, you have no choice."
The tenants said the sense of rootlessness that comes with the trailer life is affecting their children.
"I'm tired of tossing my kids around like a bouncing ball," LaFrance said. "And I hate waking up every day wondering what's going to happen next."
When she brought her 5-year-old to school last week, he would not let go of her and began crying.
He asked her: "Mama, are you going to be there when I get home?"