Click 'Play' to see and hear Curt Dunstan, a Bechtel engineer, describe the appointments of a FEMA-issued travel trailer.
If pictures of the wholesale devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast are what the American public remembers most about this disaster, then the bright white, 35-foot aluminum breadbox known as a "FEMA trailer" is a close second for Katrina's most iconic image.
These FEMA trailers dot the landscape here like metallic dominos, strewn along the Gulf Coast in patterns as random as the hurricane winds that took the dwellings they now replace. In other areas the trailers sit in neat tight rows, as if aligned by some control freak construction foreman. Such areas are known as "emergency group" sites -- or "egg" sites as FEMA personnel call them. They amount to aluminum subdivisions, complete with their own water, sewer and electric hook-ups; they have roads and even centralized laundry facilities in some cases.
Each 280-square-foot trailer is a self-contained study in pure economy class. The trailers are set up to sleep six -- a double bed in the “master” bedroom, bunk beds in the other bedroom and two on a sleeper sofa in the main living area. One adult might be able to ride out the maximum 18 months the trailers are on loan from FEMA, but toss in two adults and a couple of kids and perhaps a grandparent and you “have to live your life in shifts,” as one Bay St. Louis resident put it.
The units soak up outside cold and heat with fiendish efficiency, making them unbearable to live in without constantly running the heater or air conditioner, neither of which was meant to operate full time. Thankfully the trailers are hooked right into the local water and sewer system, alleviating the need for storage tanks or septic systems. And if you thought the hot water ran out fast at your house (which probably has a standard 60 gallon water heater), the water heater in a standard FEMA trailer has an almost cruel 10 gallon capacity. The one “luxury” provided is a microwave; however, the standard 1.4 cubic ft. capacity of the appliances would make even a student at state college turn up his or her nose.
In order to get into a FEMA trailer, you have to qualify as having lived in a house that is either no longer there or is uninhabitable. In order to prove you lived in the area, you need to show FEMA some verifying documentation.
"Proving you're a resident here, with all the documentation wiped out, has been a problem," says Sam Lamport, FEMA's division supervisor for Hancock County.
The process of applying and occupying a FEMA trailer can take "nearly 4-6 weeks," according to an agency fact sheet dated Dec. 5. The displaced must call FEMA and apply, then prove eligibility and then wait until a trailer comes available.
However, when MSNBC.com spoke to Lamport, there were 60-plus trailers ready to be moved into at a moment's notice, all located at "egg" sites. That seems to be at odds with one of the most common complaints one still hears around Waveland and Bay St. Louis: FEMA hasn't come up with the trailer they've promised to provide.
Lamport says it takes "three and four hours" to roll a trailer out of its staging area, set it at a home site, connect water, sewer and power lines and be ready for someone to move in. Bechtel, the private construction company that is under FEMA contract to install the trailers here, has been hooking up 150 trailers a day, Lamport says. But that number has dwindled significantly -- to about 50 per day -- because most of the need for trailer placements has now been filled, says Yogi Howell, FEMA's field supervisor in Hancock County.
'A lack of communication'
So why so many complaints? "It’s a lack of communication between the people that lost their homes and FEMA, because they didn’t call and say 'I need a travel trailer,'" says Lamport.
Howell, who is something of a disaster professional, having been in charge of installing FEMA trailers and other temporary housing for most of the country's major disasters of the last decade, including the Northridge earthquake in California, says "the travel trailer part of it is getting close to the end," and that soon FEMA will be concentrating on installing mobile homes.CLICK FOR RELATED STORY: NEW LIFE IN A FEMA TRAILER
In the end, Howell figures there will be about 9,000 travel trailers in Hancock County. But that's just a guess, he says.
"You’ll never know that until the last application is taken, and all the systems are weeded through," Howell says. "That’s a hard number to always get. There used to be a theory behind it, a kind of formula, to figure out how many travel trailers you might need, except that (theory) sort of went away these last few disasters."
And while emergency group sites may have empty trailers "right now," it's often the case that people want a trailer on their own property. "But in order to install a trailer on a person's property, there needs to be water, sewer and electricity," Lamport says. And space; if there is too much debris, a trailer won't be hooked up until a space can be cleared, Lamport says. If those criteria aren't met, no trailer gets installed. However, Lamport did say that someone living in a trailer at an "egg" site can eventually have that same trailer moved onto their property whenever the utilities and debris issues are resolved.
The process of setting up the trailers in the aftermath of Katrina has been more daunting than any previous disaster worked by Howell, who said, "it was a damn mind-boggling deal to even start with."
'A total wipeout'
There was just nothing to work with, Howell says. "Normally you go into a disaster, but your infrastructure and stuff is intact. You got water, sewer, electric ... or something that’s easily fixed," he says. "And here it was a total wipeout and all of your infrastructure being gone. It’s been a challenge from day one. Everywhere you turned there was another obstacle."
Howell said FEMA is now looking at developing mobile home sites, a much more permanent solution than travel trailers. But mobile home parks require more finesse; more permitting, more approval from city and local officials.
But that's needed because the clock on the little aluminum trailers is already ticking. Eighteen months after occupation, everyone is supposed to be out and moving into more permanent housing, Lamport says. That deadline started the day after Katrina hit, despite the fact that not a single FEMA trailer had yet been installed.
When asked about the fairness of the timing Lamport purses his mouth, hesitates for a long while and finally says, "That’s what the policy says. That’s how the program goes.” And then, in a quick, almost exasperated addendum he says, "I’m sure FEMA isn't going to kick anyone out after 18 months ... given the magnitude of this disaster."
And what happens if, after 18 months with the trailer, someone finds they really love the trailer life, can they buy it from FEMA? "No," Lamport says. "The trailers all go back the General Services Administration where they are auctioned off," he says.
So, if someone wants the trailer they've been living in for a year and a half, they have give it away, figure out how to bid for it, instead of being allowed to buy it outright from the government, and then figure out how to transport it back to the area Lamport is silent when asked about the practicality of such a policy.
And just because the occupants of a FEMA trailer get to stay in it rent free doesn't mean they don't have obligations.
Occupants "are supposed to keep the trailers clean," Lamport says. "There’s a move-in inspection that is performed, noting any damages," he says. "And any damages they cause they are responsible for when there’s a move-out inspection."
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Temporary Housing Each 280-square-foot trailer is a self-contained study in pure economy class. The trailers are set up to sleep six a double bed in the “master” bedroom, bunk beds in the other bedroom and two on a sleeper sofa in the main living area. One ...
Posted on Dec 24, 2005 3:23:54 AM at: Planning for Renewal