As Hurricane Rita edges across the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters, feeding the now Category 5 storm, federal and local workers are readying for new damage while still attending to the devastation delivered by Hurricane Katrina.
According to a report in the Jackson Clarion Ledger, housing continues to be the greatest need in Mississippi, and federal officials say they are working as fast as possible to meet the demand.
FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said the agency has placed 747 Mississippi families in mobile homes and travel trailers, most in the past several days. Gov. Haley Barbour said he expects the state will need between 35,000 and 60,000 trailers and mobile homes to meet the need caused by the storm.
FEMA has ordered 125,000 housing units from four private contractors, 6,700 of which are available. In addition, the federal government bought 17,000 trailers from dealers throughout the United States. McIntyre said the difficulty has been in finding sites for them.
“We don’t just go in and install travel trailers anywhere,” he said. Sites have to have utilities available, and the owners must sign leases with the government or agreements donating the land. Those have been hard to find, McIntyre said.
One such place is the A-1 Trade World Flea Market and RV Park. Katrina wrecked the flea market, but owner Michelle Whitfield said the 78-lot RV park was fine.
Whitfield inked a deal with FEMA about a week after Katrina hit, and the feds turned her business into a mobile home park in short order. “They were desperate to get people into housing,” she said.
While she is getting paid for the lots, Whitfield said she donated another 10 acres of the flea market to use as a staging area for additional travel trailers and mobile homes. Most of those homes will be going to applicants who can place them on their own property.
Barbour said he wants FEMA to concentrate on placing the homes on individual lots instead of in large mobile home communities. “What we want to avoid is temporary trailer parks,” he said.
For most, the residents at the flea market are happy to have a place to live.
Michael and Cari Shultz lived in an apartment with their two children in Biloxi until Katrina hit. When the storm destroyed their home, they sent the kids to stay with relatives and spent the next three weeks in their minivan, sleeping in shifts.
While glad to be out of her car, Cari Shultz said she is surprised that it took so long for FEMA to make housing available and that she only found out about the program through word of mouth.
FEMA is allowing the hurricane survivors to stay in the temporary homes rent-free for up to 18 months. That will be long enough for many who are trying to piece their lives back together.
“I couldn’t be happier with where we ended up,” Cari Shultz said. “It’s not our apartment, it’s not a home, but I’m thrilled.”