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Yvonne Williams, a retired Holiday Inn housekeeper rescued by canoe with her grandchildren from Hurricane Katrina’s flood waters, spent two weeks in a humid emergency shelter in Thibodaux that aggravated her asthma.
According to a report in the Boston Globe, last week she moved into a new home: a 32-foot camper with air conditioning, set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Williams is breathing easier, but there’s a catch. The trailer sits 118 miles from her former home in New Orleans, in a roadside campground surrounded by sugarcane fields. There is no store for miles and no public transportation, just the occasional rumble of tractor-trailers towing oil-rig equipment on state Route 90.
”I have a place to stay, but it’s really inconvenient,” she said of the cramped trailer, where she might live for up to two years.
She has no car and no phone. She wondered aloud when the school bus would bring her grandchildren back to the campground and its algae-filled swimming pool.
Williams, 64, is among the first Louisiana residents uprooted by Hurricane Katrina to participate in a massive, expensive, and controversial housing program that will bring up to 300,000 trailers, mobile homes, and prefabricated houses into the state to serve as temporary homes while New Orleans and surrounding parishes are rebuilt, a process that could take years.
FEMA has ordered the first 115,000 portable housing units and said it has identified 15,000 sites – like the Chase’s RV Park in New Iberia, La., with 31 FEMA trailers – where the units can be parked. Rows of trailers stretch across a field in Baton Rouge, where they are waiting to be towed by contractors throughout the state. Louisiana’s interstate highways are clogged with the structures and their ”wide load” signs.
”This is the biggest direct housing campaign in the history of our agency,” said Brad Gair, FEMA’s housing director in Louisiana. The government had earmarked $3.6 billion for the project as of last week. President Bush cited the operation in his speech from New Orleans on Thursday night as he listed how his administration is spending the $60 billion in federal relief money allocated thus far.
Federal and state officials said they want to keep as many dislocated people as possible close to New Orleans and surrounding communities. They plan to install roads and sewers in the new trailer communities. But the plan has been criticized by national housing specialists who say handing out rental vouchers would be cheaper and easier.
And the prospect of huge new mobile-home parks and makeshift campgrounds – some containing up to 25,000 evacuees – is generating resistance among some local officials. While many of Louisiana’s parishes are welcoming evacuees and are impatient with what they call a slow pace at FEMA, some parishes fear the project will import urban problems into their communities.
”We don’t want that to turn into a slum,” said Gordon A. Burgess, the elected president of Tangipahoa Parish, north of New Orleans, said of federal plans to put 700 trailers in his parish. ”It would lower property values. It’s a tough call.”
Residents would have a better quality of life if the government gave them money to relocate temporarily to Houston, for example, where jobs are more plentiful than in rural Louisiana and the residential vacancy rate before the hurricane hovered at 15%, said Susan Popkin, a housing specialist at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.
”The idea of concentrating them in trailer homes in the middle of nowhere risks recreating the same conditions or worse they were living in New Orleans, extreme poverty without access to resources and without access to opportunity,” she said.