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In the two months since two hurricanes swept the Gulf Coast, the federal government has spent almost $1.3 billion buying 95,151 travel trailers to shelter evacuees. And, according to a report in the Boston Globe, many housing specialists say they view the effort as misguided and unnecessarily expensive.
The idea of buying tens of thousands of travel trailers, and of 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 (FEMA) assistance plan for the Gulf Coast.
The bills for creating the first big trailer park, built along a dusty road 90 miles from New Orleans in Baker, are coming in and they are 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.
FEMA is building 10 more trailer parks, evaluating 79 potential sites, and increasing its budget for park construction by hundreds of millions of dollars.
The agency pursued its trailer park plan as more than a million apartments sat empty across the South. This prompted many critics to say that FEMA missed an opportunity to house hurricane victims using the rental voucher system used for the Los Angeles-area earthquake of 1994.
Criticism of the temporary housing program has come from conservatives and liberals, who see the plan as costly and detrimental to survivors’ well-being. Beyond the fiscal cost is a social one: The trailer parks are likely to become crowded, remote, and undesirable, giving residents little chance to find jobs or schools.
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 must cook victims’ meals, and must post guards while they sleep.
And later, the government will pay again – to tear it all down.
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 specialists said that relying on so many was not 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.