FEMA Trailers Hard to Come By in New Orleans

For many in the Gulf Coast, a stark white travel trailer issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is now home. Some park the trailers in their driveways while their houses are rebuilt. Others live in makeshift trailer parks. But in New Orleans, it's difficult to get one of those trailers.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For many in the Gulf Coast, a stark white travel trailer issued by FEMA is now home. Some park their trailers in their driveways while their houses are rebuilt. Others live in makeshift trailer parks. But in New Orleans, it's difficult to get one of those trailers, as NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

FEMA has thousands of trailers waiting to set up in Louisiana, and especially in hard-hit New Orleans. The agency is just waiting for local officials to give the go-ahead. So are people like Carrie Grant(ph). At a recent town hall meeting hosted by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, she said she's caught up in a bureaucratic mess.

Ms. CARRIE GRANT (Resident): We don't have no place to stay. FEMA calls my cell phone every other day asking me, `Do I need a trailer?' and I tell them the same thing every other day, `Nothing changed, yes I do. But where is it?'

BRADY: For Grant and thousands of others, the answer lies within their local government. FEMA spokesman James McIntyre says in other states, the governor typically uses emergency powers to suspend local zoning ordinances so FEMA can set up trailers quickly.

Mr. JAMES McINTYRE (FEMA Spokesman): In the state of Louisiana, the parish governments and the local officials control those ordinances, so we have to work through them getting approval before we can place units.

BRADY: Getting that approval has been difficult, because Mayor Ray Nagin and the City Council have been fighting over who has the authority to say where the trailers should go. City Council passed an ordinance giving itself that authority, the mayor vetoed the ordinance, and then last week the council overrode the veto. Councilmember Jackie Clarkson echoed the views of her colleagues.

Ms. JACKIE CLARKSON (New Orleans City Council): Ladies and gentlemen, district councilpeople know their districts. We know where it's best to have these trailers and how it's best to have these trailers, and as you've heard...

BRADY: After the vote, Clarkson said the matter was settled.

Ms. CLARKSON: The politics is over. We're in command.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRADY: But the political battle isn't over. Here's Mayor Nagin the next day.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): We're still under a state of emergency so, you know, in reality the ordinance that passed, it does not have the force of the law.

BRADY: Nagin says he's willing to work with the City Council, but the final decision is still his. This political battle represents a larger disagreement between two groups of New Orleans residents: those who've returned to the city and those who want to. The council represents those already in the city worried about FEMA trailer parks showing up near their property.

(Soundbite of truck)

BRADY: Bertrand Butler lives near A.L. Davis Park, named for a local civil rights pioneer. Butler is upset the park has been closed to the public and turned over to trailers.

Mr. BERTRAND BUTLER (Resident): Do you see any green space anywhere? This would never be A.L. Davis playground again.

BRADY: So this all used to be grass right here?

Mr. BUTLER: Oh, yeah. All this was grass. It's gravel now. All this was grass. That was a football field with a track field around here.

BRADY: Mayor Nagin says he understands the concerns of people like Butler and City Counselors, but he says he has to weigh that against the desires of all the evacuees he's met with around the country.

Mayor NAGIN: There's more people outside the city that really want to come back, and they're not very sympathetic to people saying, `It's not in my backyard.'

BRADY: There's another reason it's been difficult for FEMA to get trailers set up in New Orleans. There has to be some infrastructure, even for a travel trailer. Electric and gas service has been restored to nearly three-quarters of the city, but several ZIP codes, especially in the Ninth Ward area, still don't have the sewer and water service necessary to set up a FEMA trailer. Jeff Brady, NPR News, New Orleans.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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