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FEMA Works to Move Evacuees Out of Trailer Homes

March 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM EST
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In the second in a series of reports on Gulf Coast housing problems, Betty Ann Bowser examines FEMA's plans to find more permanent housing for hurricane evacuees who have spent months living in trailers.
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JIM LEHRER: Next, our second story on the Katrina trailers. Last night, we reported on problems of high formaldehyde levels in travel trailers used on the Gulf Coast. Tonight, Betty Ann Bowser updates the government’s plan to move Katrina evacuees out of the trailers.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: Paris Williams was scrambling last week to move out of her FEMA trailer near Baton Rouge. Like tens of thousands of Louisiana residents who lost their homes to Katrina, Williams had been living in the trailer for two years.

FEMA has moved families out of 122,000 trailers and mobile homes so far and had planned to have everyone out by this year’s hurricane season. But last month, people were told they should move out as soon as possible.

That’s when the Centers for Disease Control said the agency had confirmed unsafe levels of formaldehyde in some of the units. The chemical is found in materials used to make the trailers.

After searching for weeks, Williams finally found a house, but she’s not happy with it.

PARIS WILLIAMS: When we find the house, and then they still will give you all these rules. They really don’t want you in the houses, first of all. It’s bad coming from New Orleans. We had to leave from Katrina. Katrina ain’t harm us. It’s the after effect of Katrina that’s harming us.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Williams’ neighbor, Judy Bartholamew, is still looking.

JUDY BARTHOLAMEW: For two weeks, I spent over $500 on gas, borrowing people’s cars, don’t have no transportation, and I got an 86-year-old mother in there that’s sick. We have to be close to a hospital, and they’re trying to make us move. We have nowhere to go.

Soaring rental rates

BETTY ANN BOWSER: People want to get away from the formaldehyde that's made many of them sick. The problem is where to go.

Katrina wiped out much of New Orleans' affordable housing. Since the flooding, rental prices in the city have skyrocketed. A two-bedroom apartment that went for $500 to $600 a month two-and-a-half years ago is now $1,300.

Jim Stark, who heads FEMA's gulf recovery efforts, says his agency will make sure people find new homes.

JIM STARK, Federal Emergency Management Agency: We use realtors. We have a team here in New Orleans with about 60 people that travel all around the state looking for rental resources. We use the newspaper, the Internet, and we compile a database and try to match our applicants to affordable homes.

No one should be living in a trailer for two-and-a-half years or beyond. We're working real hard to place them and take into account their needs.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: FEMA has promised to pay for all relocation costs, to deal with landlords, and even take care of pets on a case-by-case basis. But many trailer residents, like these protestors, say it's almost impossible to find housing. And even when they do, the landlords don't want anything to do with them or with the government agencies.

Criticism of FEMA response

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And some say FEMA isn't living up to its promises.

THOMAS GARRETT: It's just all a joke. I did everything that FEMA told me to do, that everything my caseworker told me to do. She did the steps. You know, everything was done. And even the FEMA people at the main office called me with some questions. I answered the questions. She says, "We have everything in your file we need," and then I get this letter saying that I was denied.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A FEMA housing counselor was on hand when Heather and Matthew Durrand learned the results of formaldehyde testing done on their trailer.

FEMA COUNSELOR: If you request to be relocated, what happens is you have to call this number right here. And what happens is, you call this number, within 24 hours, they'll assign you to another caseworker. As she works with you, she'll give you a list.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the Durrands weren't convinced it made sense to move.

HEATHER DURRAND: I mean, the options they offered for housing say, "Yes, we'll pay the rent portion, OK, but" -- but they don't give you a timeframe of how long they'll pay that. But they also -- there's the deposit to get in the places in the first place. And you don't have that to, you know, pay, then what are you going to do?

It's difficult to sort through all the information you're given, you know, and figure out, "Well, oh, my god, where do I stand? Am I going to be homeless?"

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In fact, the homeless population in New Orleans has doubled from 6,000 to 12,000 since the flooding. Until recently, when an advocacy group found hotel rooms for some of the population, the homeless were living under a bridge just blocks from the French Quarter.

Surveys show that almost two-thirds of them cite Katrina as the reason they became homeless and that, after the storm, almost one-third of them had started out in FEMA trailers or housing. Many of the homeless have jobs, but no place to live.

Stark doesn't believe those now leaving their trailers will end up homeless.

JIM STARK: I don't think that's going to happen. I think we have -- we will, as I said, set in place very soon with the state some meaningful casework people. And our goal now is to move those people onto some affordable housing solution that will fit them.

If we can do it easily by finding them a rental that they can afford for the long term, that's great. If they can't, then we'll help them into some interim solution and, working through our partners at the state, working through our federal housing experts, help them find something on a more permanent basis.

Help from charitable organizations

BETTY ANN BOWSER: FEMA is also looking to local private organizations for help. Catholic Charities has been working with FEMA tenants who in February were told they had just a few weeks to move out of a commercial trailer park outside of Baton Rouge.

NEW ORLEANS VICTIM: Yes, I got this water bill right here for $1,600-something dollars. You see it up here?

NEW ORLEANS VICTIM: $1,648.71.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Kenyatte Gaines (ph) and Sam Sammartino discovered that people like Betty Randolph (ph) were still getting water bills for their homes that had been destroyed by Katrina. If she didn't pay $1,600, the water wouldn't be turned on at her new home.

NEW ORLEANS VICTIM: And so my debt is still...

KENYATTE GAINES, Catholic Charities: It's still running?

NEW ORLEANS VICTIM: It's still not up.

SAM SAMMARTINO: When do you want to move?

NEW ORLEANS VICTIM: I have a house on West Harrison Street (ph). I'm ready to move any day.

SAM SAMMARTINO: You won't be able to move until we pay this.

NEW ORLEANS VICTIM: I know.

SAM SAMMARTINO: As we progress, people will often ask me, "Well, why haven't they moved on? Why haven't they moved on? Why haven't they moved on?" Well, there's a lot of barriers that go on into that moving on process.

I mean, jobs, you know, the average income that you're required to make is around $15 to $18 an hour to pay for the rental rates that are out there right now. And the skill sets that people have doesn't match that.

Finding places to relocate

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Shakoor al-Juwani is a case worker for the Episcopal Diocese of New Orleans. His organization has been buying properties and fixing them up for those who need affordable housing, but he admits that's only making a small dent into the tight housing market.

SHAKOOR AL-JUWANI, Episcopal Diocese of New Orleans: Yes, this is a lot of about 30, out of 38 properties that we're going to turn into rental properties.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: He says federal officials have told him some people may have to go out of state to be placed in housing.

SHAKOOR AL-JUWANI: They're making it clear that they've made a commitment that everyone will be moved into some kind of a housing situation out of the trailers, but that people should not expect that they will be able to remain and be brought back to New Orleans or even be able to remain in Louisiana.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Stark says he hopes it doesn't come down to that, but in some cases it may be necessary.

JIM STARK: There will be probably a population that will be very difficult to place. I'm not saying we want to move people away from their homes, their home cities, but that may actually happen at some point.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: He promises to head up a task force of federal and state teams to look closely at how to expand the housing stock along the Gulf Coast.