As Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston in late August, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director William “Brock” Long said he wanted to avoid a repeat of Katrina-style temporary housing that shattered New Orleans communities.
“The last resort is to bring in manufactured homes and travel trailers,” Long said.
But less than a week later, FEMA went on a mobile home-buying binge, spending nearly $300 million on 4,500 units, the largest purchase of the homes since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, federal contracting records show. Another 1,700 mobile homes in FEMA’s inventory were also readied.
Yet most of those homes remain warehoused. FEMA has made the hunt for permanent rental housing its top priority and is reluctant to deploy the notorious homes and trailers. The structures were sharply criticized after Katrina for emitting toxic fumes, displacing residents far from their communities and later becoming eyesores while stored in massive outdoor facilities.
That decision is crippling recovery efforts in states where thousands of people remain in shelters and hotels more than six weeks after massive hurricanes destroyed their homes. Now in Texas and Florida — where rental stock is inadequate — state officials are cranking up the pressure on FEMA to release the mobile units.
In Collier County, Fla., local officials sent a letter to FEMA last week, urging the agency to “expedite” delivery of mobile homes and trailers. And in Texas, state officials decided they wouldn’t wait on FEMA to get started. They purchased 29 mobile homes to jump-start recovery efforts in the wind-whipped coastal city of Rockport and began installing them earlier this month.
“It’s like a war zone. Houses are just gone,” said Jeffery Kauffmann, a deputy director with the Texas General Land Office. “We keep asking FEMA for the numbers of homes they have for us, for the addresses of people who qualify. We need to start planning.”
The triple-punch of the three hurricanes has created a housing challenge for FEMA that is unmatched since Katrina. In Texas, an estimated 1.2 million homes were damaged or destroyed. In Florida, where estimates are still being tabulated, the number is already in the tens of thousands. In Puerto Rico, about 250,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.
Among the hurricane victims seeking help from FEMA is Michele Anderson, a 50-year-old mother of seven whose three-bedroom trailer was destroyed when Harvey made landfall in Rockport, Tex. Two days later, she filed a claim, and has made weekly visits to the local FEMA office ever since.
“They keep telling me my case is pending, which is good, because it hasn’t been denied. But it doesn’t feel good to me,” Anderson said. “My children and I are living with my ex-mother-in-law. My ex-husband is sleeping in a tent in the back yard. It’s ridiculous. I’m not getting anywhere.”
FEMA officials said they cannot comment on individual cases. However, they said generally thatmoving from relief to recovery efforts is labor-intensive. For each family that needs a place to live until their apartment or home is repaired, FEMA must evaluate the veracity of the claim and then work with local officials to find the right housing solution. FEMA first attempts to move families to undamaged, vacant rental homes or apartments near their neighborhoods. To reduce reliance on mobile homes and trailers in the past, FEMA also has made temporary fixes to damaged homes so they’re livable as permanent repairs are completed.
Some of the problems with mobile homes and trailers have been resolved, FEMA officials say. New building standards, they say, ensure that trailers and mobile homes no longer emit the formaldehyde fumes that sickened families after Hurricane Katrina.
However, there are other concerns that cause FEMA officials to cautiously weigh requests for trailers and mobile homes, exacerbating wait times.
Property owners rarely have sufficient space on their land to accommodate a mobile home or even a small trailer. Some homeowner associations prohibit their use.
As a result, pop-up towns are sometimes created where the units are installed in mass, far from people’s old homes. In Katrina, this created a second tragedy for some families who were moved away from the community networks, transportation options and social services familiar to them. Ultimately, clusters of the used trailers and mobile homes were carted to large, open fields where they sat for years, blighting rural communities in Louisiana.
“There are rippling effects. It disrupts neighborhoods. Churches close down. Schools change. People move away,” said Gerald E. Meunier, a New Orleans-based attorney who sued the manufacturers of the Katrina trailers over the formaldehyde fumes, securing more than $53 million in settlements. “People talk about the health problems, but they also changed the character of New Orleans.”
Alex Amparo, head of FEMA’s disaster recovery program, said because of this history there are no immediate plans to set up the “group sites.” However, he added, “I would not take that off the table.”
Officials said FEMA quickly issued contracts to build mobile homes to ensure that, if other housing options couldn’t be found for families, the units would be on hand to “haul and install” in days.
“We’ve had a number of catastrophic events, and the housing needs are great,” Amparo said. “This is part of our push to preserve as many options as possible.”
But even state officials who empathize with FEMA’s position understand the criticism.
“I wouldn’t say FEMA is slow rolling the process,” said Pete Phillips, senior deputy director for community development and revitalization for the Texas General Land Office. “But there is a possibility of them being overly cautious so they don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.”
As a result, the roughly two dozen mobile homes that have been installed in Texas and Florida so far have gone to families that had sufficient space on their property, next to their damaged or destroyed homes.
Kauffmann, also with the Texas General Land Office, said the first state-purchased unit in Rockport was placed right next to a home that is now rubble.
“All the windows were blown out. The deck is gone. The roof was ripped off. The wood siding was peeled off,” Kauffmann said.
The unit is located in a subdivision near Copano Bay, where half the homes are no longer habitable. Ten-foot-high piles of drywall, furniture, broken glass and metal roofs — the remnants of destroyed homes — line the neighborhood’s streets.
Kauffmann said that although he is frustrated by FEMA’s speed with rolling out the mobile homes, he doesn’t want to “dog FEMA since what they are doing is pretty overwhelming.”
Amparo acknowledges that once the rental markets are exhausted, mobile homes are typically the next move. However, “the challenges presented by using manufactured homes are so great, we are looking at other creative ideas,” he said.
In Texas and Florida, FEMA officials plan to replicate the Shelter at Home program that was first used in New Jersey and New York after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012. The program involves quick construction projects that make all or part of a damaged home safe and functional so families can live in them while repairs are made.
“The sink might be propped up by a couple of 2-by-4s. It isn’t always pretty,” said Elizabeth Zimmerman who was associate administrator of FEMA’s response and recovery program . “If you keep people in their homes, they are much happier. Everything is familiar.”
However, Texas and Florida officials say no families have yet received help from the Shelter at Home program so far, as they negotiate with FEMA how it will be funded and implemented.
In Puerto Rico, Amparo and other FEMA officials said there are no plans to use manufactured homes because it’s difficult to get them to the island and most cannot withstand the extreme weather.
For those who cannot find alternative housing on the island, Amparo said heavy-gauge blue tarps are being distributed to help people stay in their homes. FEMA has handed out 50,000 tarps to patch up roofs ripped off by the hurricanes. The Army Corps of Engineers is also heading up a larger program called Operation Blue Roof that has so far installed nearly 900 large tarps over homes where the roof was mostly or entirely ripped off.
But the tarps are barely making a dent in filling the needs of Puerto Rico residents. Juana Escover, a 38-year-old New Yorker, just returned from a volunteer effort in Puerto Rico where she delivered flashlights, water, satellite phones and solar chargers to about 100 homes on the eastern part of the island.
Escover said that more than half the homes had neither roofs nor windows. Only two had received tarps, yet people were still living in their homes.
“I visited one woman and the rain had just stopped. She was soaking wet, wearing a long gown and open-toe sandals,” Escover said. “She was using a broom to try to sweep away the water that had just come into her home. But the rain keeps coming.”
Arelis R. Hernández and Julie Tate contributed to this report.