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FEMA's temporary trailer homes under scrutiny

BAKER, La.—John Kittles is getting some new neighbors—more than 500 of them, courtesy of Hurricane Katrina and the federal government.

On pastureland near his old farmhouse north of Louisiana's capital city, officials are opening one of an unprecedented number of trailer villages, long-term transitional housing for Katrina evacuees.

Federal authorities have ordered about 125,000 trailers—more than they've ever requested for any disaster. They are rolling into Louisiana, Mississippi and other states that suffered damage at a rate of 500 a day.

The villages, which contain both travel trailers and mobile homes, sprout after most major natural disasters. Katrina displaced more than 1 million people, and as officials tally damage from Hurricane Rita, the numbers are growing.

But as the Federal Emergency Management Agency scrambles to help more than 250,000 people eligible for transitional housing help, the viability of trailer villages—a critical cog in the government's disaster relief machinery—is facing its stiffest test.

Few of the units have been provided to homeless evacuees more than a month after Katrina hit. And fundamental questions are being asked about how well the system will work as more and more trailers are provided.

Low-income housing experts say FEMA needs to reduce its dependence on the trailers, arguing that they too often are clumped in isolated areas where residents battle high crime rates and ghettolike poverty.

"The notion that you can immediately create communities out of 100,000 of those structures is ridiculous," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "It sounds like a disaster."

Kittles also is skeptical.

"I don't know how they're really going to keep things in order with 500 people moving in here, all of them hurting for money," Kittles said. "I hope it works out for people, but it's going to be kind of a strain."

FEMA officials say the trailer parks they're opening will work well and are meant only to provide housing for up to 18 months.

They "normally have no more crime or other impact than any other subdivision," agency spokesman James McIntyre said. "A lot of the criticism is unwarranted."

Officials in Charlotte County, Fla., hammered last year by Hurricane Charley, don't think so. They say the 64-acre village FEMA built in their area has been a magnet for crime, and as the relatively affluent community rebuilds, the poor in the FEMA trailers can't afford the rents.

The population in the village remains about 1,500 people—about the same as when it opened, officials say.

To help those displaced by Katrina, FEMA has more than 7,000 trailers ready at staging areas in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and at a supply area in Texas. The rest are in the procurement pipeline, McIntyre said.

In Louisiana, FEMA is under pressure from state officials who have heard stories about poor living conditions and don't want that to happen in their parishes.

"We've said they will not be the same for us," said Kim Reed, director of policy and planning for Gov. Kathleen Blanco. "Our expectation is these will not be transitional housing units, but rather transitional communities."

While leaders such as Blanco worry about the future, those simply waiting for shelter have more immediate concerns.

Chris Swilley of Gulfport, Miss., applied for a trailer a week ago; the hurricane's winds peeled his roof back from the eaves, and half of his home collapsed.

Swilley's daughter, Mandy, who also lives at the small white house on 32nd Avenue in Gulfport, sent her two children to stay with their grandmother in Hattiesburg, Miss., fearing mosquitoes and heat would make them sick. Chris Swilley now sleeps in the front bedroom of the home. Mandy slept in a tent in the front yard until Saturday, when Rita's winds snapped the tent's poles.

FEMA's process for getting the housing units to those who need them isn't moving fast enough for the Swilleys and others still waiting for housing more than a month after Katrina hit. More than 1,400 trailers procured by FEMA sit vacant throughout southern Mississippi.

"I don't know how they are sorting all this out," Mandy Swilley said. "I figured FEMA would come out here a lot sooner."

FEMA officials say it takes time.

"You can't drop 30,000 trailers on the Gulf Coast and just let people take them," said FEMA spokesman Gene Romano. "There is a process here."

Setting up a trailer requires a clear, level spot with water, sewage and electrical connections.

In Mississippi, almost 1,500 units are at a staging point in Purvis waiting to be deployed, and more than 2,000 have been placed. In Louisiana, about 100 people had been placed in trailers by midweek.

President Bush has set a deadline of mid-October for all evacuees to be out of temporary shelters, where more than 75,000 people remain. FEMA and state officials are looking for sites to place the mobile homes, but they will need large areas with electricity and water, which may not be easy to find.

Not everyone is complaining about FEMA's housing assistance. Dee Lumpkin, the deputy director of the Emergency Operations Center in Hancock County, Miss., said she was grateful for a place to stay.

"I didn't have anything left but a piece of floor," she said.

Lumpkin stays in her trailer with her 12-year-old son, Dakota.

"He's just happy to have a home," Lumpkin said. "There's still people out there sleeping out, so we are very fortunate."

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(Frazier reported from Baker, La.; Keller and Hundsdorfer reported from Biloxi; Knight Ridder correspondent Miriam Hill in Batron Rouge contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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