Jesus Cirilo Jr. and his family owned a home along San Felipe Creek in Del Rio, Texas, until Aug. 23, 1998, when Tropical Storm Charley stalled over the border town and dropped 17.6 inches of rain in 24 hours, sending a 12-foot-high wall of water hurtling into the town’s poorest neighborhood, destroying more than 200 homes.
According to a report in the American-Statesman, Austin, after the storm, the 79-year-old disabled World War II veteran and more than 150 newly homeless families were moved from shelters into two trailer parks set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on the outskirts of the city.
Seven years later, Cirilo still lives in the FEMA trailer.
“We lost a lot of things, but our lives were saved,” Cirilo said. “I like the trailer. It was new. I bought it in payments, and I own it now. I’m content with what I got.”
So were many others. Del Rio officials say most of the flood victims bought the FEMA trailers and either remained on the original sites or, like Cirilo, bought lots elsewhere and moved the trailers. A temporary solution has become long-term.
The lessons learned from Del Rio’s park may offer a glimpse of the future on the Gulf Coast as FEMA rushes to set up 120,000 trailers for those left homeless by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The $2.5 billion plan is a major component of federal efforts to move evacuees out of shelters.
FEMA officials estimated that on Sunday (Oct. 16), a day after the government’s self-imposed goal for emptying temporary shelters, 11,239 people remained in shelters in 11 states. The pressure for more long-term housing solutions has heightened as FEMA has come under fire for spending $11 million a night to house evacuees in hotel rooms.
The first FEMA trailer park, filled with 570 small vacation trailers, opened Oct. 3 in Baker, La., 10 miles north of Baton Rouge, and two others are being set up in Biloxi, Miss., and Hancock County, Miss. FEMA had placed about 6,700 other trailers on private lots by last week.
The American-Statesman reported that another 9,000 are at staging sites in Selma, Ala., Purvis, Miss., Baton Rouge and Texarkana, ready to be distributed within those states, according to FEMA spokesman James McIntyre.
FEMA is offering hurricane victims $2,358 per household for three months of rental assistance, which can be extended for up to 18 months. Although they prefer to match evacuees with temporary housing in an apartment or house near their community, the trailer parks are seen as a last resort for the most devastated areas, according to Sara Wurfel, a FEMA spokeswoman.
“Where there is a housing shortage and the damage is too extensive, a travel trailer might be the best option after all others are exhausted,” Wurfel said.
Like many Gulf Coast evacuees, the victims of the Del Rio flood had no home to reclaim. The city fixed some of the damaged homes but demolished many others, and the local Rotary Club turned the creekside neighborhood into a public park with a new pavilion and freshly planted oak trees.
Meanwhile, the local housing authority ran the trailer community, setting it up like a subdivision with street names and small yards. Extra law enforcement patrolled the area at night, and city buses launched routes to downtown. FEMA footed the bill for rent, and residents paid utility bills.
“When FEMA came in with the mobile homes, it was an answer to their prayers,” said Del Rio Mayor Dora Alcala, who was elected two years after the flood. “The trailers were very comfortable, with air conditioning and appliances. The area that went through the devastation here was low-income. Some of them went to actual better housing when they went to the mobile homes.”