Tens of thousands of people are currently displaced from their homes as a result of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But they will not be living in government-issued trailers or mobile homes like the survivors of hurricanes past. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has decided to overhaul how it handles temporary housing for flood victims.
According to an article published today (September 19) by The Associated Press, the agency is “not borrowing from its much-maligned Katrina playbook to rely on government-issued trailers or mobile homes to shelter residents displaced by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.”
In 2005, after Katrina left more than one million people displaced on the Gulf Coast, FEMA provided housing in mobile homes or trailers for approximately 114,000 households. By March of the following year, the agency discovered that the units emitted high levels of toxic fumes, including the carcinogen formaldehyde.
Now, as the agency prepares to house people throughout Texas and Florida, Michael Byrne, FEMA’s federal disaster recovery coordinator for Harvey, told The AP, “We’re not going to put people in anything that’s substandard. We’ve learned lessons.”
While focused on not repeating Katrina mistakes, the agency has not yet finalized a new plan for handling massive numbers of displaced people. Aside from housing some in hotels, per The AP, “[FEMA] is working with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to find ways to get people back in their flood-damaged homes more quickly, without using manufactured housing.”
One town, Port Arthur, believes that FEMA could be doing a lot more to remedy their post-Harvey housing crisis. Located 91 miles from Houston, it was flooded by 26 inches of rain on August 29 during Hurricane Harvey.
It is a majority-Black city of 55,000 residents, situated near the country’s largest oil refinery with more than one quarter of the population living below the poverty line. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people are currently unable to live at home because of the storm. According to an article published Septmber 17 on ThinkProgress, “Many of them were evicted from low-income rental units that are now being gutted to prevent mold growth following the flood.”
As of last week, FEMA was still determining how to house many from Port Arthur. The agency already nixed a failed plan to use two World War II-era barges. Per ThinkProgress:
Michael Sinegal, a county commissioner for Jefferson County said he is working with FEMA on other potential housing options, including tents, some of which are now going up, vacant stores and a former juvenile correction facility in the nearby town of Nederland, that could provide temporary housing.
A number of residents in Port Arthur feel race and class have impacted the federal response to their housing situation. Said Hilton Kelley, director of Community in Power and Development Association in the city, "They are playing games with the lives of thousands of African Americans here in the city of Port Arthur. I do believe that if this was a more affluent community that we would be seeing immediate action.”