Cover Story

Trailer park blues

As federal officials inaugurate mobile home villages across the Gulf Coast, temporary shelter residents from other storms say they're stuck in a permanent state of emergency

Issue: "Trailer park blues," Nov. 26, 2005

PUNTA GORDA, Fla.-On 62 acres of rural farmland in Baker, La., white gravel has replaced green pastures, and 573 trailers sit in neat rows where cows roamed just a few weeks ago. The impromptu trailer park set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is now home to more than 1,500 people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Residents may live in the village rent-free for the next 18 months.

The FEMA village 10 miles north of Baton Rouge is one of four trailer parks the agency has set up in Louisiana and Alabama since Hurricane Katrina destroyed nearly a half million homes along the Gulf Coast in August. Many more villages are in the works: FEMA has ordered some 125,000 mobile homes and campers to shelter evacuees without homes.

In the Baker village, FEMA has set up water and electricity and is providing essentials: food, medical care, and transportation to Wal-Mart twice a day. Residents are quickly settling in, saying they are relieved to be in the trailers after weeks in shelters.

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Nearly 800 miles east on Florida's Gulf Coast, Lisa Keen was likewise relieved when she moved into a similar FEMA trailer park in Punta Gorda, Fla., 14 months ago. FEMA set up the temporary, 551-trailer village here in Charlotte County after Hurricane Charley ravaged south Florida, killing 30 and causing $15 billion in damage. Ms. Keen and her 12-year-old daughter moved into one of the furnished units when the storm destroyed their small apartment in nearby Port Charlotte.

More than a year later, Ms. Keen is still thankful for her home, but she's also frustrated with living conditions in the FEMA village, which is now riddled with poverty and crime. And as a Feb. 13 deadline looms for FEMA's closure of the village, Ms. Keen has no idea where she will go in three months. After a year of free rent and few expectations, many FEMA village residents are in a similar position: no better off than when they moved in, and no wiser about how they will assimilate back into a community where housing has become unaffordable for low-income families.

On the dusty, narrow roads that cut through the FEMA village in Punta Gorda, 435 identical trailers out of 551 originally placed here are still occupied. The 70-foot units sit eight feet apart on 90 acres of grassless, treeless land that FEMA leases from the county nearly 10 miles from town. Surrounded by a tall, chainlink fence, and bordered by Interstate 75 and the county jail, residents live isolated in an area with no public transportation.

Bob Hebert, director of recovery for Charlotte County, says at first the trailer park was "a life-saver for a lot of folks who had nowhere else to go." Hurricane Charley destroyed thousands of homes in the small county of 160,000, he said, and wiped out "100 percent of our public housing." Hundreds of low-income families-many with no insurance or savings-moved into the village, where they pay only for utilities. Residents may also receive any government aid for which they are eligible: food stamps, disability, unemployment, and Medicare.

Months later, the population of the FEMA village remains largely unchanged, and residents are struggling to find permanent housing. Mr. Hebert says that few housing units and high demand have driven up prices to unaffordable levels: "A rental home that would have cost $600 before Charley might cost $2,000-$2,500 now."

That's a price Carolyn Moore can't afford. Mrs. Moore, 59, moved into a trailer on the south end of the FEMA village with her husband and two sons when their home in Port Charlotte was destroyed. The family has no insurance and lost most of its possessions. Mrs. Moore's husband is out of work with a degenerative back disease and, at 64, was diagnosed with cancer soon after Hurricane Charley left his family homeless. Mrs. Moore is also unemployed, citing back problems as well. The couple has no medical insurance but collects a small amount of disability. "We live on a fixed income of $912 a month," Mrs. Moore told WORLD on the small porch outside her trailer.

After paying for ongoing medical bills and her mother's funeral soon after the hurricane hit, Mrs. Moore says her family has no savings and no plan: "We have no idea what we'll do in February." FEMA representatives are also unsure exactly what will happen in February. FEMA spokeswoman Denise Everhart told WORLD: "No one will be homeless," but she also said that when February comes: "This won't be our problem anymore. . . . We will have given them 18 months of free rent."


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