Katrina's FEMA trailers might be going for a buck

WASHINGTON — In an effort to put the lingering image of a failed government response to Hurricane Katrina to rest, the Obama Administration moved Wednesday to get about 5,000 Gulf Coast residents out of FEMA trailers through $50 million in housing vouchers and, for those interested, a chance to buy a trailer for as little as $1.

A joint plan announced by the Federal Energy Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development would make the $50 million in newly appropriated money available on a priority basis to low-income Gulf Coast residents of Mississippi and Louisiana. There will also be expanded transition services and funding from the stimulus bill to help with such services as security deposits.

"These new measures allow our state and federal partners to provide the remaining households with additional resources and options as they tackle the challenges that have kept them in temporary housing," said FEMA press secretary Clark Stevens in a statement.

"We understand that transitions can be a time of uncertainty, and no one will face evictions from a temporary unit while these new measures are implemented."

FEMA had issued several deadlines, most recently last weekend, for evictions from the trailers. There are about 1,000 units remaining in Mississippi nearly four years after Katrina hit.

To Mississippi Development Agency Gulf Coast Housing director Gerald Blessey, the plan is a breath of fresh air.

"I think that all the initiatives will be very, very helpful, especially for those in temporary housing," said Blessey, who credits housing subcommittee chair Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., for the voucher funding. The $1 trailer, he added, is a "great deal" and a choice that many residents have been asking officials for.

"It does empower the occupant to make some choices," said Blessey.

FEMA has taken a beating for the long delays in settling Katrina victims, especially with revelations that many trailers were "toxic" inside – due to formaldehyde used as adhesive – and causing health problems.

But an administration fact sheet says that the trailer-purchase plan will screen the trailers sold to Katrina victims.

"As an emergency measure to help residents living in mobile home and park models and who require additional assistance, the Department of Homeland Security (FEMA’s parent agency) will reduce the sales cost of their occupied unit to as little as $1," says the fact sheet. "This option will be available for units that meet safety standards and HUD’s definition of "manufactured housing" (which excludes travel trailers). For example, units must pass state tests to protect families against formaldehyde risk."

HUD programs will then take over the housing needs of the remaining trailer residents.

"As the FEMA temporary housing program ends, HUD is stepping up to ensure that we provide the resources needed to help these families transition," said Fred Tombar, HUD senior advisor for disaster and recovery programs. "We believe the HUD resources we are announcing today joined with the states' case management efforts will help many of these families find stability."