The billowing white tent cities sprouting up overnight in and around the city represent a hopeful turn in the housing shortage in areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Portable air-conditioning units create a cooling breeze. Canvas cots are decent, if not luxurious, beds. And caterers offer menus that include rib-eye steak and fresh apples.
But the facilities aren't for those evacuated from their flooded homes. They are for relief workers.
Their appearance in recent days has highlighted what has become a major dilemma for the aid effort across the Gulf Coast: Each worker the Federal Emergency Management Agency brings in creates more competition for housing and other basic necessities for victims of the hurricane.
And it has touched off uncomfortable questions about who should have priority in emergencies.
"I just don't understand it. How can they have air-conditioned tents and trailers so quickly for themselves and nothing for us?" said Linda Harold, a 49-year-old preschool teacher, whose home in New Orleans is underwater and who has been traveling from shelter to shelter with eight of her relatives.
In Biloxi, Miss., where finding a working bathroom has become a daily ordeal, the displaced have grumbled that relief workers have set up a tented complex at the convention hall with rows and rows of portable toilets but that they were not allowed to use them. In Jackson Parish, La., people complain that while utility crews have managed to put the power back on in the New Orleans central business district, where military and search-and-rescue crews are based, many homes remain without electricity.
FEMA and other Department of Homeland Security personnel deployed to the region number nearly 10,000. There are 35,000 National Guard troops, plus 7,200 on their way. In addition, there are tens of thousands of contract repair crews and nonprofit aid workers. The number of displaced, meanwhile, could be as high as 1 million.
Nowhere is the tension more apparent than in Baton Rouge -- the state capital, the closest major city to New Orleans and the base of operations for the relief effort. The population of the area has swelled to 1 million, almost double what it was before the storm.
The proliferation of tent cities has left some of the displaced with the impression that all relief and security workers have it easy, or at least better. That isn't the case. A unit of the Arkansas National Guard, for instance, had the grim task of staying at the New Orleans Convention Center after the evacuation. They slept outside on the sidewalk, without running water or electricity, amid the smell of rotting food and other trash.
Every hotel room in the Baton Rouge area is booked, and in the past week, displaced residents and relief workers have taken most houses for sale off the market.
Before the storm, the ReMax Real Estate Group had 300 homes for sale. It closed 70 contracts this week and has about 150 pending.
"I've been in the business for 29 years, and I've never seen anything like it. I hate it," said Donna Cutrer, 56, the firm's owner. "People are buying property sight unseen. People are fighting over properties. Everything has multiple offers."
"It's sad," she said. "You have all these people who have no place to go and trying to find housing. Our rental market is completely depleted and our sales market is almost completely depleted, and they have no place to go."
FEMA officials say they have been working hard to try to minimize their impact on the local housing market.
"Anything we can do remotely we are doing so we don't take a resource away from a victim," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Carter. In addition, the agency has had to be creative about how and where it houses relief workers in the region.
The lucky ones are in the few hotel rooms and apartments the agency managed to secure. About 200 are in bunks set up in an office building the agency leased to coordinate the relief effort. At least five people are assigned to each room, and they are on what FEMA calls a "hot beds" system, where people share beds and sleep in shifts.
David Fukutomi, FEMA's liaison to power companies and other utilities, is sharing a one-bedroom apartment with 10 or so people from the staff. He never knows exactly how many people will be there each night because people drop in at all hours.
"I find out how many people are there when I wake up," said Fukutomi, 40, who came in from Pasadena, Calif.
New arrivals are told to bring sleeping bags or blankets and typically end up crashing on hallway floors and in cubicles, cars, vans and motor homes for at least the first few days. Hundreds of others are in the tent complexes.
At the Louisiana State Police Training Academy, the headquarters of the FEMA operation, contractors have set up three tents for relief workers. During the day, they serve as dining halls. Dinner Saturday was boneless chicken; on Sunday, rib-eye steak. In the evenings, the tents are filled with blankets and pillows, providing shelter for 165 people each. The air conditioning is on so high that two soldiers who spent the night there recently complained that it was "freezing."
Entergy Corp., a utility company that has 10,000 relief workers on the job, has based one of its larger teams in a shopping mall parking lot just south of the city. The facility includes air-conditioned RVs and a mobile first aid center. Food is being provided by Spectrum Catering, Concessions and Special Events, a privately held firm from The Woodlands, Tex.
"That's over nine times our normal staffing size during normal operation, and so the logistical challenge is vast," said Kelle Barfield, a spokeswoman for Entergy.
Enrique Maldonado, 37, a Houston resident who works for ABC Professional Tree Services Inc., a debris removal service that is a subcontractor for Entergy, said he was told that he was likely to be in the tent city for three to four weeks and that he doesn't mind. "At least the food is very good," he said.
Ruben Garcia, Spectrum's vice president for operations, said the company is feeding 400 to 1,400 workers a day at the parking lot and that its menu had included salad, fried catfish, chicken-fried steak and pecan pie. He said the company had its own logistical problems trying to house its six employees on site. It had to rent an RV for the cooks and servers for the first time. "Every hotel room for several states is booked. So this is unique for us," Garcia said.
Meanwhile, most of the displaced have been moved from the filthy and dangerous Louisiana Superdome and the convention center in New Orleans to more decent shelters, but they are still a far cry from the sterile and efficient tent cities that many relief workers have made their homes.
In Donaldsonville, La., more than 200 people sleep in four darkened rooms next to the railroad tracks and share a portable shower. In Jackson, Miss., several dozen are housed in a cavernous congregation room of a church. At the nicer shelters, food is potluck, consisting of things such as gumbo and hot dogs, while at those that are less nice, people get "heater meals" in cardboard containers or even military rations.
Amanda Trulove, 26, a specialist with the Mississippi National Guard, has been in Waveland, Miss., since Tuesday, chafing at the inability to land and distribute supplies because relief efforts were so disorganized. Now there is plenty of food, water and medicine and some ice. But the inhabitants still lack the most-requested item: portable toilets. "I know, I know," Trulove said. "We've been asking."
It is in this context that a debate over longer-term housing options is brewing. Hurricane Katrina is expected to have destroyed or made permanently uninhabitable a number of homes that will far exceed those lost in any previous disaster in the United States. FEMA has said it has not ruled out any possibilities. It is renting luxury cruise liners and buying mobile homes and travel trailers and is even considering converting steel shipping containers into housing.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, at a news conference Sunday at FEMA headquarters, said the government should build giant tent cities like in Iraq for the displaced around the New Orleans area so that the many families that have been separated into shelters in distant states can be reunified.
He criticized the shelter system and said that the government had a "get them out of here" attitude that led them to make a poor decision about how to temporarily house the displaced people.
"We need to re-establish communities," Jackson said. "The people of New Orleans love their city."
Staff writers Sally Jenkins in Biloxi, Miss., and Anne Scott Tyson in New Orleans contributed to this report.