FEMA Trailers Draw 'NIMBY' Reaction

FEMA has trailers for New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. And many evacuees are desperate to move into them. But many neighborhoods are offering a familiar response: "Not in my backyard."

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

All along the Gulf Coast, thousands of storm victims have moved into tiny white trailer homes provided by FEMA. The big exception is New Orleans. Officials there complain they can't bring people back home because there aren't enough trailers. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, that might not be the real problem.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

Most of the houses in the Lower Ninth Ward are still coated in black muck. Helen Walker is part of a group of residents allowed in just to retrieve personal effects. Despite the bleak landscape, she says she can't wait to move back.

Ms. HELEN WALKER (New Orleans Resident): I've tried to get a trailer. They told me about a month and a half ago that I was going to get a trailer. OK? I didn't get a trailer.

KASTE: So far there are only a few hundred occupied FEMA trailers in all of New Orleans, and most of those have been set up for employees of the city and local industries. City Council member Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who represents part of the Ninth Ward, says the city needs more trailers for the general population and fast.

Ms. CYNTHIA HEDGE-MORRELL (New Orleans City Council): They want to come back. You take someone who's 70, 80 years old and you're telling them, `You got to wait three to five years to come back,' you just killed their spirit.

KASTE: Morrell and other council members have been complaining to FEMA for weeks about the lack of trailers, but FEMA spokesman James McIntyre says there is no shortage.

Mr. JAMES McINTYRE (FEMA Spokesman): We have more than 12,000 units on hand, and our manufacturers are developing those and delivering them at a rate of more than 500 a day. So we can meet the need.

KASTE: The problem, he says, is that the city hasn't prepared enough sites to take the trailers. Too many front yards are still cluttered with debris, and most of the properties still don't have reliable electric and water hookups, or if they do, they haven't been inspected yet. The city has only six electrical inspectors with tens of thousands of properties to go.

(Soundbite of door opening)

KASTE: The bottleneck infuriates local attorney Steven Randeau(ph), who's come to City Hall to plead for more inspectors.

Mr. STEVEN RANDEAU (Attorney): As it stands right now, unless the federal government hires private entities from outside of this circle, this city is doomed.

KASTE: But his suggestion that the city hire private contractors gets a chilly reception from City Council members, who say New Orleans' own inspectors are on top of the job.

Despite all the problems getting individual sites ready, there is another way to bring in more trailers.

(Soundbite of backhoe)

KASTE: FEMA has been building group sites, where dozens of trailers can share water and power. But this strategy is also hitting snags, such as Kathleen Fisher(ph), who runs out in front of a moving backhoe to confront the site foreman.

Ms. KATHLEEN FISHER: OK. So this now is--the work is stopping right now.

Mr. MICHAEL BLANC(ph) (Foreman): As of right now.

Ms. FISHER: OK.

KASTE: Fisher doesn't like the fact that this trailer site is being built in her neighborhood park, and she's just managed to convince the City Council to stop the project. She explains to the foreman, Michael Blanc, that she's not opposed to trailer parks in theory.

Ms. FISHER: Well, I hope you all do...

Mr. BLANC: That's all I know. I mean...

Ms. FISHER: I hope you do a lot more work here...

Mr. BLANC: I'm just trying to help the people.

Ms. FISHER: ...but not here.

Mr. BLANC: Well, we just trying to help the people, ma'am.

Ms. FISHER: Good. Me, too. I'm helping my city.

KASTE: Twenty orange-vested workers stand beside the utility ditch that they've just dug watching the backhoe fill it back in.

(Soundbite of backhoe)

KASTE: Their perplexity is shared by FEMA staff. During the course of one City Council meeting, the FEMA representative was first scolded for not delivering trailers fast enough and then berated for building group trailer sites in city parks, locations that had been OK'd by the mayor's office. The `Not-in-my-backyard' feeling has spread to neighboring communities, too.

(Soundbite of work)

Unidentified Man: All right.

KASTE: Just across the river in Jefferson Parish, FEMA's finishing a site with 181 neat, white trailers. Workers are pouring in concrete for the mailboxes. Contractor Ronnie Frank(ph) says he's glad storm victims will soon have real addresses again.

Mr. RONNIE FRANK (Contractor): I'm telling you, with the way the mail is running now, it'll be a blessing for them to have one place where they can receive it, you know.

KASTE: But just over the fence, Johnny Henderson(ph) doesn't like the prospect of so many New Orleanians with addresses so close to his.

Mr. JOHNNY HENDERSON: I don't know. I mean, I don't have no problem with the good folks who want somewhere to live. But they go some trash, and they going to come over here with their parents or their girlfriends and they going to come over here and they going to bring their low life right over here, too.

KASTE: Henderson's view was echoed at a raucous public meeting earlier this week, in which Jefferson Parish residents made it clear that they did not want trailer camps filled with New Orleanians.

Mr. HENDERSON: Put it where it come from. Clean out their area and put them on their property.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KASTE: And Jefferson Parish officials are listening. Parish council member Byron Lee told FEMA to take out half the trailers from the site and to give preference to storm victims from Jefferson Parish. FEMA made no promises in part because picking and choosing residents this way may violate federal housing laws. But it has become clear that some of the greatest obstacles to repopulating New Orleans are homegrown. Martin Kaste, NPR News, New Orleans.

ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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