Residents In Limbo As FEMA Trailer Deadline Looms

Pam Williams and her daughter O'leya i i

Pam Williams is trying to rebuild a home in Plaquemines Parish, about an hour south of New Orleans. More than three and a half years after Katrina, she still lives in a FEMA trailer with her 5-year-old daughter, O'leya. Williams lost tens of thousands of dollars to contractors who ran off with her money. Kathy Lohr/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Lohr/NPR
Pam Williams and her daughter O'leya

Pam Williams is trying to rebuild a home in Plaquemines Parish, about an hour south of New Orleans. More than three and a half years after Katrina, she still lives in a FEMA trailer with her 5-year-old daughter, O'leya. Williams lost tens of thousands of dollars to contractors who ran off with her money.

Kathy Lohr/NPR
Damaged house alone the Louisiana highway i i

Damage to homes and buildings along Route 23 in Plaquemines Parish is still evident more than three and a half years after Katrina. Many got hit again when Hurricane Gustav struck in 2008. Kathy Lohr/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Lohr/NPR
Damaged house alone the Louisiana highway

Damage to homes and buildings along Route 23 in Plaquemines Parish is still evident more than three and a half years after Katrina. Many got hit again when Hurricane Gustav struck in 2008.

Kathy Lohr/NPR

FEMA Trailers On Gulf Coast

Louisiana: 3,687

Mississippi: 2,188

Alabama: 19

Total: 5,894

As of March, 26, 2009 per FEMA

Five-year-old O'leya Williams i i

O'leya is extremely active, running back and forth between her trailer and the home her mom is trying to rebuild. Kathy Lohr/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Lohr/NPR
Five-year-old O'leya Williams

O'leya is extremely active, running back and forth between her trailer and the home her mom is trying to rebuild.

Kathy Lohr/NPR
Theo Smith sits at his kitchen table. i i

Theo Smith, 82, has lived in Saucier, Miss., for more than 25 years. His house was damaged in Hurricane Katrina, and he wasn't able to get a roof back on the home right away. Still, Smith is getting his house back together as best he can. That has meant painting, patching holes in the ceiling and installing floor tiles by himself. Kathy Lohr/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Lohr/NPR
Theo Smith sits at his kitchen table.

Theo Smith, 82, has lived in Saucier, Miss., for more than 25 years. His house was damaged in Hurricane Katrina, and he wasn't able to get a roof back on the home right away. Still, Smith is getting his house back together as best he can. That has meant painting, patching holes in the ceiling and installing floor tiles by himself.

Kathy Lohr/NPR
A boat sitting on dry land in Plaquemines Parish i i

This boat is sitting on dry land in Plaquemines Parish near the small fishing town of Empire, La. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina swamped this narrow peninsula that's surrounded by the Mississippi River, marshland and gulf waters. Kathy Lohr/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kathy Lohr/NPR
A boat sitting on dry land in Plaquemines Parish

This boat is sitting on dry land in Plaquemines Parish near the small fishing town of Empire, La. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina swamped this narrow peninsula that's surrounded by the Mississippi River, marshland and gulf waters.

Kathy Lohr/NPR

May 1 is the deadline for people living in FEMA trailers along the U.S. Gulf Coast to get out.

Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes more than three and a half years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit, and thousands have lived in temporary trailers ever since.

Now FEMA says its program has ended; it's time for residents to find other places to live. But some have nowhere to go.

No Simple Solution

A tattered white travel trailer sits on Pam Williams' property in Port Sulphur, La., about an hour south of New Orleans, where she lives with her 5-year-old daughter, O'leya.

The two sleep together on a pullout sofa in the 8-by-28 foot trailer. The trailer is cramped and smells of cigarettes. Their belongings are strewn about the place. A TV and papers clutter what was once a breakfast nook.

Life is so hectic that it's hard for Williams to keep any real schedule. She cooks eggs for her young daughter in the middle of the afternoon. O'leya loves scrambled eggs and weenies.

During Katrina, Williams' house was washed into a canal. Since then, she's been trying to build a new one. It's just a few feet from the trailer, which sits in the front yard. Right now, the home is a framed-in shell with electricity but no plumbing.

"I have a bathroom and three bedrooms to be completed," Williams says. "I have all the material — just lacking the funds to get it all together."

Williams works full time as a guard at her parish landfill. She got tens of thousands of dollars to rebuild but lost it to unscrupulous contractors who stole her money and left her house unfinished.

It's easy to understand why it has taken some people so long to get their lives back together in Plaquemines Parish. It's rural and a long way from any city. There's virtually no rental housing and for many like Williams, the solution is not simple.

Williams says she's been taken advantage of.

"You're looking for help. You're trying to make it back home. And they tell you, well look, we can do this for you, and it don't happen," she says.

Williams is working with a nonprofit group, the Advocacy Center, to get a couple of extra months in her trailer.

"I think that Pam is pretty fed up at this point. She's exhausted," says Jordan Chernikoff, a case manager with the center.

Chernikoff says Williams' physical well-being is weakening because she's lived in the trailer for so long. "And she doesn't want to stay there. At the same time, she needs a few more months to finalize a plan," she says.

A Tough Situation

About 6,000 families still live in FEMA trailers all along the Gulf Coast, mostly in Louisiana and Mississippi. That's what remains of the largest temporary housing operation in U.S. history. At one point, more than 143,000 families lived in trailers after hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit. They were never intended to be permanent homes.

The federal government has spent $5.6 billion on housing assistance. Those who remain in the trailers are mostly single-parent families, poor, mentally ill, disabled and elderly.

At a trailer park in Biloxi, Miss., more than a dozen FEMA trailers are mixed in with others that are privately owned.

FEMA's Mississippi coordinator, Mike Miller, says FEMA probably put more people in temporary housing after Katrina than at any other time. He says this kind of operation had never been tried before and now officials are learning some things about how to withdraw.

FEMA was condemned for its handling of Katrina early on. Now, even with a May 1 deadline, Miller says, FEMA isn't planning to evict families right away. "The housing program has been going almost four years. There's been a lot of assistance given to help them with rental assistance, with utilities, and that continues today."

Miller says they are "certainly not gonna bring folks out from FEMA to kick people out of trailers."

FEMA will check on families still living in trailers and on their plans to find permanent homes. FEMA is also working with people who want to buy their trailers.

"At some point, you get to the point in the operation or the event where it moves from disaster operations to welfare operations. And that's not what we do," Miller says.

FEMA officials say they're in a tough situation — caught between those still living in trailers and others in Gulf Coast communities who want to see the trailers go.

Judith Garza, a deputy chief for FEMA in Louisiana, says some homeowners consistently call and tell officials the trailers are bringing down their property values. They ask, "Why can't this person's unit be picked up?"

"We have that pressure on both sides," Garza says. "We can just continue to work as feverishly as possible with that applicant to be able to get them to move on as quickly as possible."

'Too Stubborn To Leave'

Theo Smith is 82 years old with a shock of white hair. Until recently, he lived in a FEMA trailer on his land in Saucier, Miss., with his spunky Chihuahua, Cocoa. As the May 1 deadline approached, Smith moved back into his half-finished home, way out in the country.

"Well, I know what needs to be done. It's that I just can't do it. I can't get nobody to help me do it," Smith says.

Smith's wife died not long after Katrina. He is struggling with cancer. Even though he's a bit shaky, Smith has been painting and installing floor tiles by himself.

"I sit in the chair just like this, one tile at a time. And I get up as far as I could go and I'd scoot that chair up and go again," Smith says as he shows us his progress.

So much still needs to be done. There are holes in the ceiling where there used to be light fixtures. The plumbing needs to be repaired. Smith didn't have any insurance. Yet he says he wanted to stay here.

"Like my doctor told me, I was too stubborn to die and I'm too stubborn to leave," Smith chuckles.

Because he lives in such a rural area, Smith didn't get much help. Kathleen Johnson with Katrina Relief in Waveland, Miss., says the same thing happened all over the Gulf Coast.

"Whatever damage has occurred in that house over the last three years is now the way he [Smith] is gonna have to have to live the rest of his life — in a house that meets no known standards," Johnson says. "I mean it is really not livable. But he is one of thousands that are moving back into their homes — as is."

Johnson says about 250 of her clients are still living in FEMA trailers in this county but she says she's trying to help 2,000 others who still need safe and stable homes.

"We're not done. We're not even close to done," Johnson says.

Just In Case

Three and a half years later, FEMA officials say the federal government can only do so much to help people after a disaster. But homeless advocates wonder what will happen to families who don't have any options.

There are apartments available, but only for those who can afford them, according to Sue Weishar with Unity of Greater New Orleans. She says homelessness has doubled since Katrina.

"Folks that lived here before Katrina on $200 or $300, some of those folks are having to resort to [living in] abandoned buildings. It's just astounding," Weishar says.

Back in Plaquemines Parish, Pam Williams has a home but it's uninhabitable for now. A friend works to install a bathtub and her cousin comes by to help out when he can, but Williams knows there's no way her house will be finished by Friday.

"I come too far. I'm not giving up. I will have my house completed," Williams says.

Williams is exhausted and she's worried about whether she'll be able to keep her FEMA trailer a while longer. So she's packing up — just in case.

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