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Now FEMA trailers are in hurricane harm’s way

Many of the 35,000 FEMA trailers and mobile homes in Mississippi are in flood-prone areas, raising fears that they may be in harm's way during the upcoming hurricane season.
FEMA trailers and campers line Pontiac Road in Kiln, Miss. The trailers stand on the lots of heavily flood-damaged homes, built on stilts along the banks of the Jourdan River.
FEMA trailers and campers line Pontiac Road in Kiln, Miss. The trailers stand on the lots of heavily flood-damaged homes, built on stilts along the banks of the Jourdan River. Nicole Lacour Young / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

On a satellite snapshot of this tiny town is a cluster of red dots that looks ominous to scientists like Joe Swaykos.

The dots represent 132 trailers set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for people whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The trailers are crammed into a one-square-mile neighborhood, and most of them are along the banks of the Jourdan River.

Those homes and the people living in them could be in real danger if another hurricane strikes the Gulf Coast, said Swaykos, director of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center of Higher Learning, situated at NASA’s Stennis Space Center.

“If the Jourdan River rises above flood stage, forget about it,” he said. “It’s going to be a real mess.”

Swaykos and his Stennis colleagues mapped the location of FEMA trailers using space-age technology and old-fashioned legwork. It is one of several projects they are working on to help local officials get ready for the start of the next hurricane June 1.

Knowing where the FEMA trailers are could be useful if there is a hurricane evacuation.

FEMA won’t say where trailers are
But the mapping has not gone as well as Swaykos had hoped. His office asked FEMA for a complete list of where more than 35,000 trailers and mobile homes in Mississippi are situated. FEMA declined to share the data, citing privacy concerns.

“We try to work with them as best as we can, to allow them to contribute to the recovery process, but paramount to us is the privacy of individuals,” FEMA spokeswoman Mary Hudak said.

Swaykos and his colleagues are puzzled by FEMA’s refusal to cooperate.

“We don’t care who’s in the trailers. Just tell us where they are,” said Jim Matthews, head of a mapping laboratory at the Center of Higher Learning.

Ultimately, Matthews created the map of the Kiln neighborhood without FEMA’s help. He spent a recent morning there, recording the coordinates of the trailers he saw. Back at the lab, he plotted the data on a photo with red dots.

In addition to the flood danger to the trailers is the risk that a hurricane will turn the homes into dangerous projectiles. “Those things are going to be missiles going through the air,” said Harrison County Emergency Management Director Joseph Spraggins.

Also, Swaykos fears many trailer residents will try to haul their homes to a safer place if a hurricane threatens. And that could clog evacuation routes.

‘We're not trying to point fingers’
“We’re not necessarily forecasting anything,” Swaykos said. “We’re not trying to point fingers at any organization. We just want to have everybody involved in solving these problems to be working from the same picture.”

FEMA’s Hudak said the agency tried to avoid setting up trailers in flood-prone areas, but some are there because it is more convenient for displaced homeowners to have them on their own property. Around 85 percent of the trailers and mobile homes in Mississippi are on private property.

As for the risk of the trailer homes clogging highways, FEMA has warned residents that moving their trailers is not only dangerous but illegal.

Storm victims will be allowed to live in FEMA trailers for up to 18 months after the Aug. 29 storm.

Carol Shiyou, 45, and her husband, Al, live in one of the government trailers on the center’s map. It is parked in front of their riverfront home, which was flooded by four feet of water even though it sits on 18-foot stilts.

She plans to evacuate and leave their trailer behind, but she wants to know what FEMA plans to do with her temporary home. Will they move it or leave it where it is? Is she supposed to empty it before she evacuates?

“They should give us some guidance and not wait until the last minute,” she said.

Legislator calls for planning
Some officials, including Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., have urged FEMA to formulate a plan for moving trailers in danger of flooding. There are an estimated 141,000 FEMA trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana.

“Hurricane evacuations are difficult enough already without the prospect of thousands of Gulf residents trying to haul their own FEMA trailers on congested highways,” Taylor said in a letter last month. “The federal government needs a plan for those trailers and the people who live in them.”

Hudak could not say whether the agency has developed a plan to move some of the trailers if there is a storm. “Our focus is on people and making sure people have safe evacuation routes,” she said. “That’s always going to be our first priority.”

Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo, whose city was flattened by Katrina, said he is not worried about where the trailers are — not when many residents had to wait months to get one.

“Three months after the hurricane, people were still sleeping out in the elements, in the mud,” he said. “Getting them in a structure is a hell of a lot better than having them out in the elements.”