Disaster rolls on

By Michelle Chen May 09, 2009

As millions of Americans struggle to save their homes from foreclosure, refugees of an earlier catastrophe are facing the latest in a series of displacements. This time, they’re clinging to the makeshift shelters that were supposed to serve as temporary homes as they rebuilt their lives. This month, the Federal Emergency Management Administration hopes to clear away some of the last tatters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: the trailers that have become a fixture in the the seemingly endless recovery process. FEMA plans to evict people from the trailers, while insisting that it has made diligent efforts to connect hurricane survivors with permanent housing. Other initiatives, including grant programs for homeowners and rental subsidies through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, are reportedly underway, yet many families say they’ve received virtually no relief. The New York Times reports:

Thousands of rental units have yet to be restored, and not a single one of 500 planned “Katrina cottages” has been completed and occupied. The Road Home program for single-family homeowners, which has cost federal taxpayers $7.9 billion, has a new contractor who is struggling to review a host of appeals, and workers who assist the homeless are finding more elderly people squatting in abandoned buildings. Nonetheless, FEMA wants its trailers back, even though it plans to scrap or sell them for a fraction of what it paid for them.

Just as bank foreclosures have pushed people out of homes only to let the houses idle in vacancy, the trailer eviction policies seem to defy logic (though perhaps that’s on par with other examples of the agency’s legendary dysfunction). The US Human Rights Network called on the Obama administration to deliver “substantive” relief to the families left behind by the recovery effort—far more than the threadbare services and substandard housing that have deepened the region’s economic and racial inequities:

Thousands of persons — not unsurprisingly principally people of color — are still displaced from their Gulf Coast region home and the federal government has the primary responsibility to provide assistance to these displaced persons throughout the duration of their displacement.

Despite ample evidence that survivors have not been able to access adequate assistance, Louisiana FEMA spokesperson Manuel Broussard told the Times, “Everyone’s been offered housing up to this point several times. And for various reasons, they have not accepted it.” FEMA’s memo on the termination of the trailer program explains that the agency “has been providing temporary housing for 44 months—26 months longer than the statutory limit,” suggesting that somehow, the trailer occupants are the ones dragging their heels in moving toward self-sufficiency. FEMA is making one last effort to make the best of the situation: occupants are supposed to be given the option of purchasing their trailers at a price that the agency determines based on “fair market value,” provided that the survivor fronts the money for “other costs, such as the State sales tax, insurance, local permit fees, and hazard and flood insurance (if required), and any cost associated with moving the unit (if applicable).” Whatever housing resources FEMA has made available to hurricane survivors over the past 44 months, one thing the agency doesn’t seem capable of offering is dignity. Image via Flickr