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.
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."
Eighteen months of free rent may actually be part of the residents' problem, according to Ana Romillo of the Charlotte County Homeless Coalition, a private coalition of churches, nonprofit organizations, and county agencies that offers assistance to low-income families. The coalition offers "food, clothing, rent vouchers, gas vouchers, whatever people really need," she said. But Ms. Romillo emphasizes that requirements are attached to the aid: Residents pay a modest rent, must save at least 5 percent of their income, and are required to attend basic money management classes.
Ms. Romillo says FEMA should have established similar requirements for residents of the trailer park. "There was no follow-through to explain what they should be doing while they are there," she said. "Don't just give them money with no questions asked and leave them alone."
In a small lobby in the Genesis Center where the coalition operates, three single mothers sit hunched over clipboards, filling out information sheets while their children play in a corner. Ms. Romillo says case workers evaluate the sheets to determine needs and give financial counsel to clients. Last year the coalition raised funds to build three houses for low-income families who may live in the homes for two years.
Ms. Romillo says her organization wanted to go door-to-door in the FEMA village to speak with residents about housing options, job opportunities, and financial management, but FEMA regulations do not allow it. Nonresidents must be invited into the trailer park by a resident or a FEMA official. FEMA did eventually allow Ms. Romillo's group to set up a booth near the front of the trailer park.
FEMA's Ms. Everhart says government case workers do meet with residents of the FEMA village every 30 to 60 days to check on their progress on finding homes and jobs, but they can't require that residents get jobs or save money: "Our hope is that while they are here they're saving money, but there's really no way to tell." Mrs. Moore says a case worker visits her family once every two months, "but they don't really say nothing to us. . . . It feels like they just want to know when we're going to get out."
Mrs. Moore says she would like to get out, citing uneasiness about crime within the community. Bob Carpenter of the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office says "the stress level is getting to everyone out there" and "crime is a real problem." A county report shows that the 435-trailer community averages 220-250 calls to 911 each month. Domestic disturbance is the most common complaint, followed by theft. Over the past year, emergency workers have also responded to 22 calls regarding drugs, nine assault complaints, four reports of rape, and 15 attempted suicides within the village.
Mr. Carpenter says crime is particularly a problem among teenagers "who have absolutely nothing to do." Mrs. Moore says her family has never been "hurt or bothered," but that her 17-year-old son "doesn't leave this platform without us knowing exactly where he's going. . . . There's a lot of fear out there."
Village resident Lisa Keen says "you see the best and the worst of people out here. . . . You have everything from good citizens to drug addicts and prostitutes." Ms. Keen also says village residents haven't taken as much responsibility for neighborhood security as they should. When FEMA first established the village, Ms. Keen says FEMA reps "put a flier on every trailer here" advertising a meeting about safety. "Only 23 people showed up," she said. "We need to take responsibility for ourselves."
As the February deadline looms, FEMA is offering residents the option to buy the trailer they've lived in if they have nowhere else to go, and if they have a place to put the unit. So far, FEMA has sold 59 trailers to evacuees across the state, and 800 more sales are in process, according to spokesman Hugo Buehring. Mrs. Moore isn't sure she'll be able to buy the trailer her family has lived in, even at a reduced price, but says she is "thankful for the roof we have over our heads now." She also says she's sure that "come February, there's still going to be a lot of people here."
FEMA representatives say they already have plans for the trailers once they evacuate the Punta Gorda village next year: They are bound for Louisiana and Mississippi.
When Minnesota suffered flooding in 1950, Rep. Harold Hagen asked his congressional colleagues to provide relief for his state. He introduced a bill that became the Disaster Relief Act, the federal government's first means of creating "an orderly and continuing method of rendering assistance to the states and local governments in alleviating suffering and damage." The bill's price tag, only $5 million, was deliberately small.
Some in the Senate had suspicions. Virginia's Absalom Willis Robertson (the father of Pat) asked the bill's floor manager, John McClelland, for more specifics, but the Arkansas senator said merely that the president would be empowered to declare disasters, and "we can certainly rely upon whomever may be the president of the United States having some judgment."
Disaster relief, like Social Security and Medicaid, expanded as Congress 13 times through 1980 responded to other tough situations by adding on grants for temporary housing, legal help, and mental health. Presidents began issuing more declarations of calamity: Dwight Eisenhower averaged 13 per year, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson 18, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford 37.
The annual average dropped to 32 during the Carter administration and 28 during the Reagan years. But the number jumped under George H.W. Bush, who averaged 43 declarations annually, and it was off to the races with Bill Clinton, who more than doubled the total to 88 and was the first president to make snowstorms official disasters. George W. Bush has gone even further: During his first term he averaged 136 declarations per year, or one every 2.7 days, although there were fewer hurricanes (and fewer major hurricanes) then than during the 1950s.
Jimmy Carter in 1979 tried to make sense of disaster relief by establishing FEMA via executive order. He stated that the new structure would "permit more rational decisions of the relative costs and benefits of alternative approaches to disasters." Mr. Carter was wrong: Presidents kept reacting politically, and local and state officials kept passing the buck and asking for bucks. None of the Katrina debate is really new, not even for the Bush family: When Hurricane Andrew caused huge damage in Florida in 1992, Dade County officials on television screamed that President Bush didn't care, and he (during a futile reelection attempt) promised them a multibillion-dollar moon over Miami.
Andrew's $35 billion in losses, along with the $44 billion in losses from the Northridge, Calif., earthquake in 1994, made even some in Washington stagger. A House Bipartisan Natural Disasters Task Force, a Senate Bipartisan Task Force on Funding Disaster Relief, and even Al Gore's "National Performance Review" took FEMA to task. The Gore group report noted that "the ready availability of federal funds may actually contribute to disaster losses by reducing incentives for hazard mitigation and preparedness."
The result was that FEMA underwent another reorganization and announced in 1995 that one of its main goals was to "reduce the loss of life, property, and the environment [sic] by 50 percent over the next 25 years." Early in 2001, when that goal and reality were clearly headed in opposite directions, a new administration's first FEMA director, Bush confidant Joe Allbaugh, testified before Congress that federal assistance was "an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management."
Nothing changed, though. With disaster relief seen as a federal responsibility, local and state governments have a license to be improvident, and even a fiduciary responsibility to local taxpayers not to spend money that Washington will otherwise provide. Bailouts encourage sleep-ins.
Much attention has recently been paid to the out-of-control budgetary costs of disaster relief. But an even more important question concerns the cost to the individuals who receive not just emergency assistance but long-term FEMA support. Just as local and state officials have come to see themselves not as leaders but as lobbyists for more federal aid, so many evacuees ask not what they can do for themselves, but what the country can do for them.