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Housing crisis looms for Katrina victims

FEMA wants to close its last six trailer parks in New Orleans by Sunday, the first day of hurricane season, but some residents say they will be homeless once they lose the subsidized housing.
Image: FEMA trailer
FEMA trailer parks like this one in Port Sulphur, La., are set to close this weekend, prompting fears that people will be forced into residences they can't afford or will be left homeless. Mario Tama / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The U.S. government has plenty of reasons to move hundreds of families out of emergency trailers they have occupied since Hurricane Katrina: the start of a new hurricane season, concerns about toxic fumes and the need for residents to find permanent homes.

But some worry they will have nowhere to go once they lose their subsidized housing.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency wants to close its last six trailer parks by Sunday, the first day of hurricane season. Those parks, all in Louisiana, are all that remain of the 111 the agency built and operated in the state after the August 2005 hurricane.

It is not clear, however, whether the agency will meet its goal.

While most storm victims are eager to move out of cramped travel trailers and mobile homes, others worry about where they will end up because they are only being promised one extra month of government-subsidized shelter. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita depleted the supply of affordable housing in the Gulf Coast, and rents are soaring.

"We have hundreds of people who have the potential for being homeless because they don't have the means for sustainable housing," Sister Judith Brun said.

The Roman Catholic nun has been helping to find new homes for residents of the Renaissance Village trailer park in Baker, a small town just north of Baton Rouge.

Meeting deadline
Although FEMA is pushing hard to reach its Sunday deadline, it says it will not evict anyone who is not out of the parks by then.

A FEMA news release Wednesday said 436 households were still occupying trailers at the six Louisiana group sites, including 85 at Renaissance Village, and estimated that 383 of them will still be in place on Sunday.

Despite that estimate, FEMA spokesman Andrew Thomas in New Orleans insisted Wednesday: "Our goal remains the same."

"We're trying to get them out as quickly as we can," Thomas said.

The agency said in addition to the families in the six FEMA sites, several thousand other families are still in trailers on private sites. The last FEMA-managed trailer park in Mississippi closed this month, but eight group sites that the agency does not run remain open in that state.

Toxic concerns
Though the new hurricane season looms, much of the urgency for moving the familes stems from worries about toxicity.

Tests by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found potentially hazardous levels of formaldehyde in hundreds of FEMA trailers and mobile homes. The preservative, commonly found in construction materials, can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.

Alton Love has shared a trailer at Renaissance Village with his 9-year-old daughter since January 2007. He lost his job as a truck driver several months ago, and finding new employment is not easy because his only means of transportation are a bicycle and a bus that only comes by every few hours.

FEMA found an apartment in Baton Rouge for Love and his daughter, who lived at a New Orleans housing project before Katrina. But after the government pays for the first month, Love has to pay the rent.

Most families moving out are eligible for federally subsidized housing assistance until March 2009. Love is one of those who are eligible for only one more month because they can't prove where they were living when Katrina and Rita slammed into the coast.

"I'm carless, jobless and soon to be homeless," he said. "Things are going to work out, though."

'People need to move on'
Jim Stark, FEMA's acting Gulf recovery director, said the agency is trying to place people in apartments they can afford once subsidies end.

"It's a little beyond what FEMA would normally do," he said. "Our mission is for emergency housing. Unfortunately, the emergency housing period for New Orleans and southeast Louisiana stretched a lot longer than anyone expected."

Closing trailer parks like Renaissance Village "needs to happen," said Mario Sammartino, disaster response supervisor for Catholic Charities in Baton Rouge. He oversees 16 case managers helping trailer occupants find affordable housing.

"People need to move on," Sammartino said. "I also know that not everyone is going to reach that normality, and that's what we're concerned about."