ALISON STEWART, host:
You might not think about this everyday, or even once a week. But more than two years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there are still former golf coast residents Living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. We know it as FEMA.
Registered victims of those hurricanes are currently living in 49 states -North Dakota, not so much. On Monday, FEMA announced it's allocating up to $4,000 to cover relocation expenses for the 95,000 people living in trailers or receiving rental subsidies.
There are a couple of stipulations. The recipients must not have received other relocation aid yet. They can't have received more than the current assistance cap of just over 28,000. And those in the trailers, well, they can go anywhere in the continental U.S.
Let's bring in Amanda Spake, a journalist who has reported extensively on the post-Katrina Gulf Coast and is a Katrina Media Fellow at the Open Society Institute. Good morning, Amanda.
Ms. AMANDA SPAKE (Senior Writer, U.S. News and World Report; Katrina Media Fellor, Open Society Institute): Good morning.
STEWART: So we spoke to FEMA, and they pointed out that this isn't really a whole brand new program. It's a redirection of some existing funds, things used like for housing assistance and medical expenses. But the big question is, why the reallocation of this money to move people out of trailers? Why do this now?
Ms. SPAKE: Well I think that this is the result of - actually, I'm glad you mentioned that it's not new money. It's the result of an internal memo that was written by the director of FEMA, David Paulison, back in July - July 31st - in which he basically stated he wanted the staff to come up with some kind of plan for relocating people, getting them out of the trailers, either into rental housing somewhere in the U.S., or, you know, subsidized apartments or, you know, some kind of homes other than the trailers.
And the result of this is really because of probably a year and a half of complaints by residents of the trailers about formaldehyde. Paulison took quite a beating in front of the Congress in late July. And as a result of that, I think they have been trying to get people to move out of the trailers. There are liability issues, of course, because various class action suits going on on behalf of trailer residents who say they have been harmed by formaldehyde in the trailers.
STEWART: Now those suits against - can they bring those suits against FEMA, or is it against the manufacturers of the trailers?
Ms. SPAKE: Both.
Ms. SPAKE: Both.
STEWART: Okay. Let's talk specifically about the people who are living in the trailers. From their perspective - let's just take the formaldehyde issue out of it, because that's an obvious one.
Ms. SPAKE: Mm-hmm.
STEWART: This $4,000 to move - is it a welcome option?
Ms. SPAKE: Well, I think for some people, it is a welcome option. And I think that for people who either have found a place to live or have a good line on a place to live or perhaps they have relatives in another state but they didn't have the money to get to that other state and the relatives who will help them find work and a place to live, yes, it's a good option.
But for people who don't have those sorts of resources, I'm not sure how much it's really going to do. I mean, the number of residents of trailers that I've spoken to - even if they were sick or they felt they were being made sick by the formaldehyde were reluctant to move because they felt like they would not be able to rent an apartment or a house in areas of the Gulf States that have been dramatically affected by Katrina because there's very little low-income or even moderate-income housing.
STEWART: It's interesting. That brings to the other group, or the people who are receiving these rental subsidies, FEMA announcing that - I think it's at the beginning of March - that the aid is going to decrease by $50 every month until these people are paying the rent entirely on their own. It sounds like from your experience, that's a real concern to people, if they'll ever get to the point where they can pay it on their own.
Ms. SPAKE: I think it is a concern to people, and I think that the other thing that occurred before the formaldehyde issue became such a hot potato for the agency when they were still denying that it existed, they were suggesting to trailer residents that they buy their trailers, often for fairly small amounts of money, considering what the agency paid for the trailers.
And some people did buy them. A few people did buy them, let's say for $500 or $1000, because they thought then they'd have a place to live for the rest of their lives. But the problem was, because of the issue - the health issues involved, FEMA then came back after this Paulison memo and said, well, we want to buy back your trailers now. You can't have these.
STEWART: Well, let's look at it this way. This could be considered good news to some people - on December 1st…
Ms. SPAKE: Yeah.
STEWART: …FEMA is turning its housing subsidies over to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Is that a good move, in your opinion, based on your reporting?
Ms. SPAKE: Well, I do think it's a good move in the sense that HUD has more understanding of housing problems and how to address them, you know, on a permanent basis than FEMA does. But, certainly, there have been questions about the head of HUD, his relationship with certain developers and contractors in the New Orleans area.
And what that's going to mean long term is very unclear. I mean, a great deal has been spent on this temporary housing program, a lot that could've been put into permanent housing, because let's face it - many, many, many people - I'm sure a lot of your listeners had a pretty good idea when Katrina hit that that many people that were displaced and put out of their homes, they were going to need some kind of permanent solution.
Ms. SPAKE: And trailers are just not it.
STEWART: Amanda Spake is a journalist and a Katrina Media Fellow at the Open Society Institute. Thanks for sharing your reporting, Amanda.
Ms. SPAKE: Nice to talk to you.
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