Mobile Home Plant Churns Out Temporary Housing

Contractors are revving up their housing construction for the thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors. One mobile home plant in southern Georgia is filling an order for 1,000 homes for FEMA. After each home is built, local volunteers stock the medicine cabinets with basic supplies.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The demand for housing following Hurricane Katrina may be unprecedented. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is still assessing the needs, but according to an agency report, some 450,000 families need long-term housing. One of the first companies called to meet that need is a mobile home plant in south Georgia. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR reporting:

After four hurricanes struck Florida last year, Stewart Park Homes in the small town of Thomasville, Georgia, stayed in touch with FEMA. The agency contacted the plant Tuesday after Katrina hit. By Thursday, director Mark Williams says another call came, along with a first order for 500 homes.

Mr. MARK WILLIAMS (Director, Stewart Park Homes): So it was very quick. And, of course, the initial questions were: `How many units do you have on stock?' etc. `And by the way, remember that conversation about manufacturing? How quick could you go into a manufacturing role?' And, you know, we told them, `We can do it very quickly for you.'

(Soundbite of plant activity)

LOHR: Typically, the plant builds custom recreation homes that are used as a vacation homes or second homes. They're considered part of the RV industry. Williams says the scaled-down park model is the perfect answer for those who've lost their homes.

Mr. WILLIAMS: We're doing a kind of--I guess kind of a high-end type of product for our customers. But with the needs for FEMA, what we're trying to do is get out of quality and affordable housing that will meet the needs of the hurricane victim.

LOHR: There are no upgrades, no bay windows, no hard wood or tile floors. But the 70 employees here--20 hired just this week--are working hard to get the units finished. The plant is in the process of streamlining operations to speed up the process. Each station has its own task.

Mr. WILLIAMS: We got a team working on each of the side walls, we got a team that's working on the end walls and we got a team that's working on the interior walls. And that's all that they're be doing is building those walls. So what we're doing right now is we switch over from being a custom shop to being one that's building as many units as we can get out for FEMA. It's finding that balance in the plant and allowing the plant to get its own rhythm and tempo. We call it `making the plant sing,' so that's really what we're trying to do here over the next week or so.

(Soundbite of construction activity)

Unidentified Man: All right. Here we go! Here we go! Here we go!

LOHR: At the roof table, the team here is also ahead, so they get ready to lift the tresses off a huge table to make room for the next one. The pace is rapid and the mood is upbeat, even though it's extremely hot and sticky inside the 10-hour shifts. Many employees worked over the Labor Day holiday to convert the plant to this production line, including Charles Singletary(ph).

Mr. CHARLES SINGLETARY: When people are in need, you got to help out however you can. Some folks help out with money; others just have to help out with labor. And you just do what you can to help your brother.

LOHR: At maximum capacity, the plant can produce 40 mobile homes a week. Now that FEMA has put in a second order for an additional 500 homes, it may add a second shift.

Since word began to spread around Thomasville that 1,000 homes are going to be sent out, a volunteer effort has been established to outfit them with the basics.

Unidentified Woman: All right. How many toothpastes do we have?

(Soundbite of shuffling noises)

Unidentified Child #1: Why can't we just...

Unidentified Child #2: Wait, we can just give them a three-pack.

Unidentified Woman: Well, somebody's got to have the two-pack.

LOHR: Half a dozen students are organizing supplies donated so far, including shampoo and soap, pots and pans, clean sheets and even personal notes. Community coordinator Laura Williams(ph) says instead of sending the items to a larger city, many who live here wanted to be part of something tangible.

Ms. LAURA WILLIAMS (Volunteer Coordinator): Oh, yeah. I just--I want to buy something and know that it just gets straight to the person, you know, and it doesn't go into a food bank and goes into storage for a few years. And then adding the personal notes, I think, just really makes it even more personal, that my note is going in this trailer and it's going right to a person, right to a home, and it's really going to touch their hearts. So, yes, I think the whole idea of it outsourcing here from Thomasville and going directly to the hurricane victims it what makes it really work.

LOHR: Stewart Park finished building its first seven homes and sent them to Baton Rouge this past week. Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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