By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
updated 9/2/2005 6:41:31 PM ET 2005-09-02T22:41:31

Long after the chaos and corpses of Katrina fade from the spotlight there will be the quiet desperation of hundreds of thousands of the hurricane’s refugees struggling with the prospect that they may be homeless for years to come.

Estimates of the number left homeless by Katrina range in the tens of thousands or more.  Finding long term shelter for those victims is the biggest single challenge the Federal Emergency Management situation has ever undertaken, an agency spokesman told 

The staggering numbers of homeless surpass the government’s own “nightmare scenarios,” according to two private sector disaster consultants that have worked with FEMA to prepare for just the sort of devastation wrought by Katrina.  Those consultants spoke on the condition of anonymity because their work for FEMA has not been made public.

And in fact, FEMA last year “war gamed” a Category 5 hurricane hitting New Orleans, according to FEMA Director Mike Brown, speaking on the Larry King Live show Wednesday. "So we planned for it two years ago. Last year, we exercised it. And unfortunately this year, we're implementing it,” Brown said.

“As part of this plan, FEMA is coordinating with other federal, state and local agencies as well as the private sector and voluntary agencies," said Michael Widomski, an agency spokesman. "Everything and anything is on the table,” he said.  “We’re looking at any and all options to try and determine what the best thing to do would be.”

‘Overwhelming’ problem
Jeff Wilson stood shoulder to shoulder with a small army of government and private sector planners last year and stepped into the breach in an effort to design and build long-term temporary shelter for hurricane victims as Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne hammered Florida. And although he’s watching from a distance this time, Wilson shakes his head at what is happening in Katrina’s wake. “The numbers (of displaced people) are overwhelming in themselves,” he said. 

The largest housing facility set up by Wilson last year contained 600 units meant to be occupied for up to 18 months; most of those facilities, which included roads and utilities, contained from 25 to 50 housing units.

“We designed 16 to 20 facilities last year around the state of Florida,” Wilson said, “that effort will pale in comparison to what the response effort will need to be to Hurricane Katrina.”

The U.S. has never had to deal with what is effectively the entire population of a major metropolitan city on the move.  For those that didn’t make it out of the city, the so-called “refugees,” immediate, emergency shelter is a daunting problem. 

“The first plan of action was to house people in significant structures, like the Astrodome and Superdome or that kind of thing and on a smaller scale in school gyms and so forth, predominately because they offer a little more protection and shelter and have the infrastructure in place and have some support facilities,” said Craig Williams, founder and director of Architects without Borders. 

“My hope is that the general population will see fit to open their homes to their neighbors and say we can take in a small family on an interim basis,” Williams said.  “These types of things help strengthen the community; this is an opportunity for them to do that.” 

Building ‘mini-cities’
Beyond the immediate emergency shelter needs, Katrina’s victims could be housed in tent cities or trailers constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers, as has been done in the past.  After Hurricane Andrew, the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history, which left 250,000 homeless, several tent cities were set up, in particular on land of deactivated Air Force bases.

But such facilities aren’t meant to house people beyond a few months and longer term shelter is in dire need.

Even under the best of conditions the logistics to deal with 500,000 homeless are mind-boggling.  “I know [FEMA has] a lot of mobile [housing] units and they’ve been buying them since 2002,” said Rick Brady, a city planner with San Diego based P&D Consultants.  “They have lots of mobile homes, basically boxes,” said Brady, who has provided group site planning and consulting services to FEMA.  “But do they have 178,000 units, which would roughly be the number needed to house 500,000 people?  I don’t know.”

A sustainable long term solution would be to build a series of “mini-cities” with temporary housing units, Brady said.  These could be attached to reclaimed or established communities in the same region hit by Katrina, Brady said, “so that the people don’t feel isolated.  They would have access to services and would better be able to integrate with their neighbors, so they don’t feel like they are refugees in their own country.” 

Brady said he can see communities of 8,000 homes being set up in multiple areas within 60-to-90 days.  “A lot of decisions will have to be made on the fly, but that’s the nature of the beast,” he said.  “If we can overcome the human capital and materials shortages that any such effort is likely to encounter, then the rest will fall in place.”

Simply finding the right amount of land is a challenge, experts said.  Building the equivalent of several mid-size cities to house Katrina’s refugees would require nearly 40,000 acres of land, according to Brady’s calculations.

And such efforts will quickly eat away at that most precious commodity, time. 

“A typical response to the Florida storms, from the time they identified a piece of land, was about six to seven weeks before people were moving in,” said Wilson.  “But I really believe the response to Katrina is going to be totally different because of the shear magnitude.”

Another, less tangible obstacle is staying committed, said Williams of Architects without Borders.  “When the main event unfolds a lot of attention is paid and within about four to six weeks something else is on the horizon and the money is all dried up, even that which was originally committed has gone elsewhere and people are still left sitting amongst big piles of debris,” said Williams, whose group has helped out with natural disasters around the globe.

There’s a need to be accountable for how the relief money is spent, Williams said, so that large organizations don’t walk away when they “feel the job is done; when the immediacy of the triage has been dealt with but the permanent community recovery has yet to be started.”

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