While most of us were enjoying the recent holidays from the comfort of our own homes—or, at least, those of our relatives or friends—some 1,300 families in the area were still holed up in local motels, setting the cookies out for Santa atop the minifridge and hanging the kids’ stockings from the drawstring drapes.
They’ve been living like this for nearly five months now, ever since the August flood. No one can say with certainty how much longer they’ll be displaed or where they’ll go when the FEMA money runs out.
It’s a difficult problem, and one that state officials with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the Louisiana Disaster Housing Task Force and myriad other social service agencies are trying to deal with on a case-by-case basis. It’s slow going, as many of these people had few options to begin with and even fewer now.
The issue of what to do with displaced flood victims is just one piece of what is turning out to be a very complicated puzzle. Nearly five months after the disaster, not only is it unclear where those living in motels will ultimately go, but there are still questions about where to develop group sites for FEMA’s Mobile Housing Units—the updated, expensive and cumbersome version of the infamous FEMA trailers.
After hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Superstorm Sandy, you’d think local, state and federal officials would have figured this out by now. With all the talk about resiliency over the past few years, shouldn’t we have been better prepared to deal with a massive flood in a flood-prone state?
The answer to that question depends on who you ask, but it’s clear that a lack of communication between federal, state and local officials continues to be an ongoing problem, as it has been with previous disasters.
“There’s a huge gap,” says Paul Rainwater, a former commissioner of administration who led the state’s recovery effort after Katrina. “Discussions are not happening. Someone is not facilitating the meetings that need to occur.”
Not everyone would agree with Rainwater’s assessment, but there clearly is a disconnect. Consider that Metro Councilman Scott Wilson found out about an MHU group site planned in his district on South Choctaw Drive from concerned residents of the nearby Rushmore subdivision who didn’t want a FEMA trailer park, literally, in their backyard.
No one ever does. Helping flood victims is fine as long as they don’t set up temporary shelter on vacant lots in your neighborhood. Never mind that back in October the Metro Council approved the Choctaw site and several others as potential locations for FEMA trailer parks.
Wilson says the problem is that the site was never definite and that, more importantly, FEMA never followed up with him to let him know they were planning to develop it, something he says the agency agreed to do. Instead, neighborhood residents learned about it when work crews began surveying the land.
“FEMA told me they’d get back with me before doing anything,” Wilson says. “They never did.”
Since Wilson raised his objections, FEMA has begun looking elsewhere for alternate sites. They have options in East Baton Rouge Parish, though not in Central. Mayor Junior Shelton made it clear to the agency several months ago that no group sites would be developed in his flood ravaged municipality. Any FEMA trailers would have to be placed in one of Central’s three existing commercial mobile home parks—and the park owner, not the federal government, would run the park and make the rules.
“After Katrina there were a lot of problems with the FEMA trailer parks,” Shelton says. “People came and squatted for 18, 24 months and didn’t contribute. We didn’t want to get into that situation.”
State officials who have been in on the discussions say it’s a problem and that communication issues and NIMBYism are just two of the factors. GOHSEP Deputy Director Mark Riley says it’s also important to realize that the August flood created the largest housing disaster FEMA has faced since it did away with its much derided, formaldehyde-infested travel trailers and switched to the MHUs, which reportedly cost some $160,000 each and take weeks to haul and install.
“It’s been a rough process,” says Riley, who predicts some 4,200 units will ultimately be needed in the Capital Region, compared to the 300 or so that FEMA typically installs at disaster sites.
Riley says in retrospect, FEMA apparently solved one problem by creating another, a situation that is all too typical of federal bureaucracies. But he bristles at criticism of the federal agency. He says if blame is to be ascribed it should be pointed at the bureaucrats in Washington, not the men and women who work for FEMA and have been stationed for months on end in south Louisiana.
“The FEMA people on the ground are doing a tremendous job,” he says. “The tool they’ve been given to do it with is not a good tool. The MHU program is not a good tool, but that is a conversation for another day and another level in D.C.”
It’s a conversation that, we can only hope, will take place before the next disaster.