ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast in 2005, leaving more than 100,000 people living in small, crowded trailers. Those trailers were supposed to be gone a year and a half later. But now, more than three and a half years after the storm, nearly 6,000 people still use them. Neighbors call the trailers eyesores, and wonder why it's taken so long for some people to move out of them. Tomorrow, May 1st, is the latest in a string of deadlines FEMA has set for residents to do just that.
But as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, some in the trailers have nowhere else to go.
KATHY LOHR: A tattered, white travel trailer sits on Pam Williams' property in Port Sulphur, Louisiana, about an hour south of New Orleans. Williams lives here with her 5-year-old daughter, O'leya.
Ms. O'LEYA WILLIAMS: Mama.
Ms. PAM WILLIAMS: Yes?
Ms. O. WILLIAMS: I'm hungry.
Ms. P. WILLIAMS: You're hungry?
Ms. O. WILLIAMS: Yeah.
Ms. P. Williams: All right. Well…
Ms. O. WILLIAMS: I'm hungry.
Ms. P. Williams: …let's go get something then.
LOHR: The tiny trailer is cramped and smells of cigarettes. A TV and lots of papers clutter what was once a breakfast nook. The two sleep together on a pullout sofa. Many of their belongings are strewn about the bedroom and throughout the trailer. 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.
Ms. P. WILLIAMS: She loves scrambled eggs and wieners.
Ms. O. WILLIAMS: I do like that.
LOHR: During Katrina, Pam Williams' house was washed into a nearby canal. Since then, she's been trying to build a new one. It's just a few feet from the trailer, which sits in her front yard.
Ms. P. WILLIAMS: You guys want to come in?
LOHR: We do.
Ms. P. WILLIAMS: Okay, come on.
LOHR: Right now, the home is a framed-in shell with electricity but no plumbing.
Ms. P. WILLIAMS: I have a bathroom. I have three bedrooms to be completed. I have all the material, just lacking the funds to get it all together.
LOHR: 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.
Ms. P. WILLIAMS: How do airplanes go?
(Soundbite of noise)
LOHR: Plaquemines Parish demonstrates why it's taken some people so long to get their lives back together. It's rural, and a long way from any city. There's virtually no rental housing. And for many, like Pam Williams, the solution is not simple.
Ms. P. WILLIAMS: Been taken very much 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.
LOHR: Williams is working with a nonprofit group, the Advocacy Center, to get an extension. That would mean a couple of extra months in her trailer.
Jordan Chernikoff is a case manager with the center.
Ms. JORDAN CHERNIKOFF (Case Manager, Advocacy Center): Pam's physical well-being is weakening because she's been staying in this 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.
LOHR: About 6,000 families still live in FEMA trailers all along the Gulf Coast, mostly in Louisiana and Mississippi - 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 the elderly.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
LOHR: Here at a trailer park in Biloxi, Mississippi, more than a dozen FEMA trailers are mixed in with others that are privately owned. Mike Miller is FEMA's Mississippi coordinator.
Mr. MIKE MILLER (Coordinator, FEMA-Mississippi): I think we probably put more people in temporary housing. Had to break any records ever because it's never been tried before. Now, we're learning some things about how we withdraw.
LOHR: FEMA was condemned for its handling of Katrina early on. And now, even with a May 1st deadline, Miller says FEMA isn't planning to evict families right away.
Mr. MILLER: 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. And it's certainly not going to bring the folks out there from FEMA to kick people out of trailers.
LOHR: Miller says 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.
Mr. MILLER: 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.
LOHR: 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 them go. Judith Garza is a deputy chief for FEMA in Louisiana.
Ms. JUDITH GARZA (Deputy Chief, FEMA-Louisiana): We have homeowners who consistently call us and say, you know, this is bringing down my property value, and it's an element in the neighborhood that I don't necessarily like to see all of the time. You know, why can't this person's unit be picked up? And we have that pressure on both sides, and we can just continue to work, you know, as feverishly as possible with that applicant to be able to get them to move on as quickly as possible.
(Soundbite of a dog barking)
Mr. THEO SMITH (Resident): My name is Theo Smith, and I've been here, living here, since 1982.
LOHR: Smith is 82 years old with a shock of white hair. Until recently, he lived in a FEMA trailer on his land in Saucier, Mississippi, with his spunky Chihuahua, Cocoa. As the May 1st deadline approached, Smith moved back into his half-finished home, way out in the country.
Mr. SMITH: Well, I know what needs to be done. I just can't do it. I can't get nobody to help me do it.
LOHR: Theo 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.
Mr. SMITH: Been trying my best to get it back together. And so I got mad.
LOHR: How did you get this floor done?
Mr. SMITH: I sit in the chair just like this, one tile at a time. And I get up far as I could go, and I'd scoot that chair up and go again.
LOHR: So much still needs to be done. There are holes in the ceiling where there used to be light fixtures. The plumbing is still broken. Smith didn't have any insurance.
Why did you want to stay here?
Mr. SMITH: Like my doctor told me, I was too stubborn to die and I'm too stubborn to leave here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LOHR: Smith didn't get much help because he lives in such a rural area. Kathleen Johnson with Katrina Relief in Waveland, Mississippi, says the same thing happened all over the Gulf Coast.
Ms. KATHLEEN JOHNSON (Katrina Relief, Mississippi): Whatever damage has occurred in that house over the last three years is now the way he's going to have to live the rest of his life, in a house that meets no known standards. I mean, it is really not livable. But he is one of thousands that are moving back into their homes as is.
LOHR: Johnson says about 250 of her clients are still living in FEMA trailers just in this county. But she says she's trying to help 2,000 others who still need safe and stable homes.
Ms. JOHNSON: We're not done. We're not even close to done.
LOHR: 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.
Ms. AMANDA MILLS (Unity of Greater New Orleans): Yeah, there's apartments available if you can afford it.
LOHR: Amanda Mills is with Unity of Greater New Orleans. She says homelessness has doubled since Katrina.
Ms. MILLS: Folks that can't afford it that lived here before Katrina on $200 or $300, some of those folks are having to resort to abandoned buildings and are living there without running water, electricity - and holes in the roof. It's just astounding.
LOHR: 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 tomorrow.
Ms. P. WILLIAMS: I come too far. I'm not giving up. I will have my house completed.
LOHR: 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.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News.