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At the airport in Hope, Arkansas, you'll find one of the most visible reminders of FEMA's bureaucratic problems after Hurricane Katrina. It's where mobile homes, trailers, thousands and thousands of them, are being stored. They were ordered and built to house evacuees from Katrina. But despite a still urgent need for housing on the Gulf Coast, they're sitting unused and vacant at the Hope Airport.
NPR's Greg Allen has the story.
GREG ALLEN reporting:
Frustration about the stockpile of unused mobile homes in Hope has even reached the White House. At a news conference last week, President Bush cited it as an example of a bureaucratic problem he was working to fix.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: I mean, I think for example the trailers sitting down in Arkansas. Like many citizens, they're wondering why their down there. You know, how come we got 11,000? So I've asked Chertoff to find out what are you going to do with them? Taxpayers aren't interested in 11,000 trailers just sitting there. Do something with them.
(Soundbite of airplane)
ALLEN: The airport here in Hope is a World War II air facility. An occasional airplane lands on the one runway that's still open. The other runways and acres of surrounding pastureland are now covered by more than 10,000 mobile homes. These aren't the trailers with wheels. These units are what is sometimes called manufactured housing, single-wide trailers, most of them about 60 feet long and 14 feet wide. Row upon row of the mobile homes, nearly identical, all covered with white aluminum siding, sit unoccupied, while just a few hundred miles away on the Gulf Coast an estimated 98,000 people still lack temporary housing.
One of the first people to call attention to the waste of housing accumulating here at the airport here in Hope was Democratic Congressman Mike Ross.
Representative MIKE ROSS (Democrat, Arkansas): It's kind of hard to miss 10,777 brand-new, fully furnished manufactured homes sitting in your backyard.
ALLEN: Ross lives close by in the town of Prescott. In December, he began talking to FEMA officials about why the trailers that were being trucked into Hope weren't being trucked out.
Rep. ROSS: FEMA's excuse that they give, which is not a good one, is that they won't locate a manufactured home to a flood plain. Why didn't they think about that before they purchased 20,000 brand-new, fully furnished manufactured homes? Because we all know everyone who lost their home in Hurricane Katrina and Rita lived in a flood plain.
ALLEN: Ross, along with Arkansas Democratic Senator Mark Prior, has proposed legislation that would allow FEMA to place the trailers in flood plains. FEMA spokesperson Nicole Andrews says it's not quite that simple. The agency will locate mobile homes in flood plains now, she says, if they're placed on a fixed foundation that complies with federal flood plain regulations. Andrews says along with those restrictions, there are other factors that have prevented the agency from placing them along the Gulf Coast.
Ms. NICOLE ANDREWS (FEMA): From impacts on local infrastructure, sheer magnitude of making available a mobile home site, a piece of land where we can do this kind of construction to, you know, the simple fact of just not wanting hurricane evacuees in your backyard.
ALLEN: For whatever reasons, the fact remains that only a few hundred of the 20,000 mobile homes ordered by FEMA, at a cost of $860 million, have been put to use along the Gulf Coast. Even before President Bush raised the issue, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general conducted a review, in which he criticized FEMA for “not having a plan for how the homes would be used before they purchased them.”
The review called on FEMA to develop a plan that will lay out how the agency will use or dispose of the mobile homes. Andrews says the agency is talking with officials in Louisiana and Mississippi about how to use the mobile homes there and hopes eventually to ship some 5,000 units to the Gulf Coast. She says the ones that don't go to the Gulf will be used elsewhere.
Ms. ANDREWS: Some have already been moved to Texas and Oklahoma for the wildfires that have been going there. We anticipate some will be needed during the 2006 hurricane season and then also FEMA keeps about 5,000 trailers on inventory, just in case they're needed at any time.
ALLEN: In the town of Hope, Mayor Dennis Ramsey says in November and December, when some 100 trailers a day were being delivered, it tied up traffic. But he seems almost guilty to confess that something which is widely seen as a FEMA boondoggle has actually been good for his town.
Mayor DENNIS RAMSEY (Hope, Arkansas): There's about 30 local employed out there. Of course, motels and restaurants benefited, gas sales were good. Of course, $25,000 a month that the airport's receiving is a benefit. But the hardship has been knowing they're not being utilized for the reasons which they were purchased. That's, as taxpayers, we're all concerned and upset about that.
ALLEN: FEMA says it's now considering turning the site in Hope into a permanent staging area, a stockpile for trailers and other disasters preparedness supplies. And the agency is making plans to lay down hundreds of acres of gravel, at a cost of $6 million, so the trailers don't sink into the mud. That's just one more expense that drives critics like Congressman Ross crazy. There is one thing though about the mobile homes in Hope that everyone agrees on, they're going to be here for some years to come.
Greg Allen, NPR News.
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