By Monday, families displaced by Hurricane Katrina will move here into a "mini city" of neatly spaced rows of about 600 white RV trailers that was, until eight days ago, a 65-acre cow pasture outside of Baton Rouge. A team of 200 engineers, plumbers, laborers, draftsmen and city officials have worked around the clock to install water and sewer pipes to the grassy fields, converting the area into what some evacuees working on the project call the "City of Hope."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency once envisioned "cities" of 500 to 600 RVs scattered across the South to house evacuees uprooted from their homes by Katrina. But those plans have bogged down as FEMA has tried to make its way through a maze of bureaucratic hurdles to lease land, comply with local zoning laws and overcome local opposition to "FEMA cities" within their borders.
"Our infrastructure cannot handle it," said Riley "Pee Wee" Berthelot Jr., president of West Baton Rouge parish, of FEMA's plans to install 700 mobile homes in his parish of 22,000 residents. The parish has already accepted more than 400 children in its schools, and Berthelot adds that many of the parish's rural residents are uncomfortable with the former city residents now moving in.
More than 330,000 families have applied for housing vouchers.
FEMA has set up some trailers in the driveways of homes destroyed by the hurricane so that residents can remain on their property as their permanent homes are rebuilt. But the bulk of trailers and mobile homes will be set up on large state-owned properties, the first of which is the one here about 10 miles north of Baton Rouge. A spokeswoman for Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) said the state has identified 52,000 acres it can use for setting up temporary homes.
"They're nice, but some people say they're awfully small," said Jessie James, 57, of the RV city being set up a mile away. James is a New Orleans resident now living at Baker's City Hall, which has been converted into a shelter. "I would use the RV temporarily, but I want my family to go home," she said.
Stephen J. Saucier, an architect who is one of the lead project managers of the RV park in Baker, said local officials are doing more than just setting up rows of homes. They are trying to erect a semblance of a community with a large kitchen hall that will serve three meals a day, grassy areas for picnic tables, basketball courts and laundromats. His team had to install a complex system of underground sewer pipes, water and electrical lines, and a sewage treatment facility that can process 130,000 gallons of sewage a day.
There are two kinds of homes that displaced residents will get.
FEMA has purchased or ordered 125,000 travel trailers, the kind of RVs that are towed behind a truck. Each of them costs between $16,000 and $20,000 and is at least 30 feet long and contains a stove, a refrigerator, an air conditioner, a furnace and a bathroom with a shower.
The agency has also purchased or ordered thousands of mobile homes, also known as "manufactured homes," for about $30,000 each. They are similar to the temporary offices used at construction sites. These homes are not on wheels. They are 60 feet long and contain the same amenities as the travel trailers.
FEMA stores some trailers used in previous disasters in regional locations near rail lines, such as a site outside Cumberland, Md. But in the days after Katrina, the agency scrambled to buy as many as it could find.
Phil Ornstein, sales manager for Dick Gore's RV World in Jacksonville, Fla., received an e-mail from a FEMA official asking if he had 30-foot travel trailers. The agency bought the entire lot: 304 trailers for $6 million.
"I don't want to live on someone's misery," Ornstein said. But in Florida, the RV dealers have learned to order extra trailers every year for when FEMA comes calling. "Business is business. We were ready for this hurricane," Ornstein said.
RV dealers said they have hired dozens of truck drivers to deliver the trailers to FEMA -- in some cases filled with donated goods from Rotary Clubs or other groups -- only to find FEMA's staging areas clogged with supplies.
"We've got trailers coming out our ears," said Sheila Speights, the clerk for the city of Purvis, Miss., one of a handful of FEMA's designated cities that are taking in trailers from RV dealers in Indiana, Florida and as far away as New York.
FEMA has leased a large vacant lot near an interstate, Speights said, where truckers have lined up at least 3,000 of the white trailers until the agency can find a more permanent place. "It blowed me away the first time I saw it," Speights said. "They move about half of them a day and bring half that many in."
Staff writer Charles R. Babcock contributed to this report. Babcock and Goo reported from Washington.