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Government's plan to house evacuees called misguided, too costly

BAKER, La.—In the two months since this season's hurricanes swept the Gulf Coast, the federal government has spent almost $1.3 billion buying 95,151 travel trailers to shelter evacuees—an effort many housing experts nationwide view as misguided and unnecessarily expensive.

The idea of purchasing tens of thousands of mobile homes and scattering them across four southern states in parks, on driveways and in temporary trailer communities is a critical component of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's massive assistance plan for the Gulf Coast.

The bills for creating the first big trailer park, built along a dusty road here 90 miles from New Orleans, are coming in and they're eye-popping: $22 million to prepare the lots for 573 trailers. That's about $38,000 apiece, or more than twice the average price of each trailer.

Undeterred by the expense, FEMA is building 10 more trailer parks in the region, evaluating 79 potential sites and increasing its budget for park construction by hundreds of millions of dollars.

The agency's pursuit of its trailer-park plan comes as more than a million apartments sit empty across the South, prompting many critics to say FEMA missed a golden opportunity to house hurricane victims using the same kind of rapid-response rental voucher system that was used during a previous natural disaster.

"To be frank, I'm bewildered by what has gone on here," said Bruce Katz, a former official with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "There doesn't seem to be a plan that was really thought out in any significant way."

Katz, who helped lead the government's housing response after a major earthquake near Los Angeles in 1994, relied on vacant rental units instead of trailers.

Criticism of today's temporary housing program has come from conservatives and liberals, who see the plan as costly and detrimental to hurricane victims' well-being. Beyond the fiscal cost is the social one: The trailer parks are likely to become crowded, remote and undesirable, giving residents little chance to conveniently tap into jobs or schools.

"I don't think it's the way to go," said John Weicher, a housing expert at the conservative Hudson Institute and a former Bush administration HUD official.

Just to open the one park completed so far, the government had to run electric lines, sink telephone poles and build a sewage treatment plant. For the next 18 months—because the park was plopped down so far away from jobs and stores—the government will need to cook victims' meals and post security guards while they sleep.

And when it's all over the government will pay again—to tear it all down.

To be sure, the government's housing response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita has evolved, and different forms of rental assistance are now available. But in the earliest days of the crisis, the game plan established was heavy on trailers and light on rental vouchers—the opposite of what housing experts said should have happened.

FEMA says it turned to trailers because of how quickly apartments in Louisiana were snatched up by people who had the means to rent them—leaving trailers as one of the few ways to get temporary housing close to New Orleans.

While some trailers obviously would be necessary, housing experts said relying on so many wasn't realistic. The agency, they say, should have spread people around the region during the recovery, rather than try to build mini-cities in and around New Orleans.

In the days immediately after Katrina hit, FEMA scrambled to begin ordering the first of what could add up to 125,000 travel trailers from scores of dealers and manufacturers. The orders are the largest of their kind in the agency's history by a factor of six and could eventually be worth $1.7 billion.

"They needed trailers and they needed them now," said Steven Burnett, owner of Candy's Campers near Scottsville, Ky. "At first, they couldn't get campers (from manufacturers). The only place you're going to get them is on dealers' lots."

FEMA snapped up 165 trailers from Burnett for about $3.3 million. It took just about everything available, from 17 to 37 feet long, and it wasn't particular about whether the models were bare bones or had luxury touches, Burnett said.

But by the time FEMA began placing factory orders it had become pickier.

Each trailer had to be about 35 feet long and include such things as a stove, bathroom, sink, heating and air conditioning. Each also had to include at least one double or queen bed and, with bunk beds or other accommodations, sleep up to eight people.

"They won't be anything fancy, but they will be livable," said Dave Knabel, general manager of Tom Stinnett RV in Clarksville, Ind. The dealership sold 2,033 trailers to FEMA for a little more than $37 million.

So far FEMA has 16,029 occupied trailers in the hurricane-hit states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, mostly in commercial trailer parks, at state parks or on individually owned parcels. The first and so far only large-scale FEMA-built site to open is the one in Baker.

That pace falls far short of the 30,000 trailers every two weeks that FEMA initially expected to open after Katrina. However, FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said that was only a "goal the construction crews set for themselves," not a FEMA prediction.

The biggest problem has been finding places to put trailers, McIntyre said. "Thousands upon thousands of recommended sites came in, but once you do the site surveys, those sites are not suitable," McIntyre said.

That points to a basic flaw in FEMA's planning, housing experts say.

While the option of trailers is acceptable for a run-of-the-mill disaster, the number of homeless from the hurricanes was far greater than anybody had planned for. Indeed, FEMA said it didn't have a specific plan to deal with housing in the event that a worst-case hurricane hit New Orleans, despite long-standing worries that such a disastrous storm was inevitable.

Edgar Olsen, a housing economist at the University of Virginia, said the administration should have quickly set up a voucher program similar to one used after the Northridge earthquake.

A study on the federal response for Northridge, prepared by the Urban Institute for HUD, said the federal government "chose to intervene massively and quickly" to supply displaced residents with vouchers to rent apartments for up to 18 months. The report said government did so on the fly, but that the result was "timely, innovative and flexible."

In the South, census data show there are more than 1.1 million vacant rental units renting for less than FEMA's normal stipend of about $700 a month for evacuees, Olsen said, and vouchers could be used there or anywhere in the country. Three-quarters of the units are in the unaffected portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or nearby states.

While vouchers are available for people already in federal housing programs and displaced families can qualify for monthly rental assistance for three months at a time, housing experts said a rapid-response housing voucher program would have helped families get in apartments far faster—and been far cheaper than using trailers.

"The apartment is already in the ground; it's already served by utilities; it already has streets around it," said Margery Austin Turner, the Urban Institute's director of the Center on Metropolitan Housing and Communities.

Vouchers as envisioned by most experts would be worth about $8,000 a year, depending on the city—far less than the cost of buying and setting up a trailer and housing people in hotels until the trailers are ready, as FEMA has been doing for the last two months.

It's hard to predict how much the trailers will eventually cost the government. Given the cost of setting up trailer parks, "this could be an endless money pit," said Katz, the former HUD official now with the Brookings Institution.

A FEMA spokesman said the agency doesn't know if it will need all 125,000 trailers it's prepared to buy. So far it has spent about $13,600 per trailer.

The agency also doesn't know how many trailers will be placed in government-built parks or how many parks it will build.

Still, FEMA raised the maximum value of its contracts to $500 million each for four companies tasked with finding and building places to put trailers, among other things, even though many trailers will wind up in relatively inexpensive commercial parks or on individually owned lots.

In Baker, the costs are already piling up.

So far, the federal government has already spent millions of dollars transforming a cow pasture on state prison land into the trailer town—complete with a 130,000-gallon sewage treatment plant, miles of utility connections and 40,000 tons of crushed limestone trucked in to build new roads.

The surrounding community of Baker has struggled to house evacuees, to teach an influx of children, and to build a police and fire substation to protect trailer residents.

All of the local agencies say they're seeking reimbursements for the costs from FEMA.

There are more costs to come. By building the trailer town in a remote Baton Rouge suburb, the government has cut off residents' access to everything from grocery stores to new jobs, meaning FEMA could be on the hook for their every need—from meal service to extensive bus transportation—for as long as New Orleans neighborhoods remain unlivable.

To be sure, the trailer park is a modern refuge, complete with running water, electricity, new fire hydrants, microwaves and freshly built basketball courts. And for evacuees who have spent weeks camped beside strangers in shelters, having a trailer door to close at night has provided a welcomed sense of privacy.

But while life in the trailer park may be a relative improvement, experts say the cramped 10-foot spaces between the trailers in Baker will soon become as claustrophobic as the shelters were. Crime will spike and domestic violence will rise, they say, as families remain out of work and helpless to improve their situations.

"They may be calling them `transitional housing units,' but if these trailer parks were anywhere else in the world they would be called displaced-persons camps," said Susan F. Martin, director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration and Georgetown University's Certificate Program in Refugee and Humanitarian Emergencies.

Said Frank Toussard, 52, who's been living in a travel trailer at Baker for a week with his wife and daughters, ages 8 and 11: "This is not a place where life gets back to normal."


(Davis of the San Jose Mercury News reported from Louisiana. Hannah of the Contra Costa Times and Adams of the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau reported from Washington.)


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-HOUSING

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