As shelters close, trailer towns open for storm evacuees

FEMA opens the first of many such villages for those displaced by Katrina.

David Tidwell III heaves his two boxes of belongings into the trailer and looks around his sterile new home. "This is all I need," he says finally, his voice choked with emotion.

It's been a long road from rooftop rescue to Superdome ordeal to restless nights at shelters in Texas and Louisiana. This will be the first time in six weeks that Mr. Tidwell will sleep in a real bed - and his first glimmer of hope since Katrina.

"A lot of people are worried about coming here. They think it's going to be like a prison camp," he says. But "it's a lot better than where we were."

This trailer-park village in the small town of Baker, La., is the first to be opened by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Many others like it will spring up as the agency closes emergency shelters across the country. FEMA has ordered 125,000 campers and mobile homes for the villages.

The agency missed its self-imposed deadline to have the quarter-million-plus evacuees in shelters relocated by last weekend, but it says 95 percent of them are now in more permanent housing.

While those coming to the trailer towns are elated to have a little more permanency and a lot more privacy, some critics wonder if these villages are the best way to spend federal resources and help evacuees get back on their feet.

"I don't think this is the most effective way of dealing with the situation," says Ronald Utt, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and a former US Housing and Urban Development official. "The much more cost-effective way for the American taxpayer and socially effective way for the evacuees is to use the existing HUD voucher program."

That program would put evacuees - who are overwhelmingly city dwellers - into apartments instead of hotels and trailer parks, giving them better access to neighborhoods, public transportation, and jobs.

But FEMA officials say the sheer number of people needing homes - roughly 400,000 - has made housing them extremely difficult. All options are being employed, the agency says.

Meals, laundry, and healthcare

At the FEMA village in Baker, which is just north of Baton Rouge, most of the 573 trailers were filled in the first week of its Oct. 6 opening. Most have three to four people per unit, and everything is provided - from three meals a day and laundry service to medical care and transportation to the local Wal-Mart twice a day.

After sending their children off to school, evacuees chat with neighbors or wander down white gravel streets on the 62-acre site, which just two weeks ago was a cow pasture.

A bus pulls up from the largest shelter in the state, the River Center in downtown Baton Rouge, which closed late last week.

"The check-in process is relatively simple. Getting here is the complicated part," says Bobbie Harris, a displaced social worker from New Orleans who is under a tent answering the new arrivals' questions. She is a member of a five-person council that first represented the 300 evacuees at the Baker municipal shelter, most of whom relocated here.

Their group came up with the name Renaissance Village for the instant subdivision, and it seems to be sticking, says operations manager Ben Hu.

"We chose the word 'Renaissance' because this is a new beginning," says Ms. Harris. "It's a whole new world, and it's up to us to make it what we want."

In an air-conditioned trailer nearby is Shannon Brown, another member of the council. She already has her home neatly appointed with knickknacks, china, and a green doormat with a yellow plastic flower.

"We also want day care, a medical clinic, mental-health services, tutors, a post office, street names, stop signs, a community center with office space," she says. "We don't want to become like that trailer park in Florida where things are out of control. We have to nip problems in the bud early because we don't know these people. We don't know their problems."

Ms. Brown is referring to the FEMA village in Punta Gorda, Fla., set up after hurricane Charley hit the area in August 2004 and reportedly riddled with crime and drug problems.

Wesley Callihan and his family lived in that village after Charley damaged their home last year and says it's not that bad. He's come to Louisiana with a group from his college to volunteer, and he's been placed at the Baker trailer park, shuttling people and their few belongings to their new homes.

"They put me here because they figured I could really relate," he says, helping Tidwell into his trailer in space U24.

Inside on the table is a welcome plant and basket filled with fruit, cookies, playing cards, matches, peanut butter, Hamburger Helper, and chips. Tidwell smiles as he begins to unpack the few things he has gathered since the storm.

Potential problems

Evacuees may be happy today, but in six months the reality of where they have been placed will set in and problems will arise - just as they have in other trailer-park villages, predicts Mr. Utt of the Heritage Foundation. A main complaint evacuees already have is that they have no way to get around, since most lost their vehicles in the storm.

"We're isolated out here. We can't walk anywhere," says Ghulam Nasim, a retired medical doctor who drove himself to the Superdome when the hurricane winds picked up. He had been staying at the River Center shelter. "At least the River Center was in the city. This was a cow pasture two weeks ago."

He also misses having telephone service, access to a library, and a post office. "Everything else is OK, but what happens when the FEMA money runs out? Are these people going to begin looting each other?"

Evacuees can stay for 18 months, and most say they will take full advantage of that. Wonda Bouffine, for instance, already knows she wants to buy her trailer when the 18 months expire and take it back to her property in lower St. Bernard Parish. She's been back once to survey the damage and says the only thing salvageable was the wooden cross that now hangs over the trailer's couch.

After only five days, Ms. Bouffine and her son, Robert Hurt, are making themselves right at home in space L08. They have set up a patio outside with two chairs and an umbrella and lined their trailer with fake flowers (since park rules don't allow real flowers) and Halloween lights in preparation for trick-or-treating.

"We're loving every minute of it, and we want to make it as pleasant as possible for everyone," says Bouffine. She has a job offer at a hospital about an hour north of Baker, but the vehicle she bought for $400 after the storm needs substantial work before she feels safe enough to drive that far each day.

"I'd be glad to go to work," she says. "Right now transportation has got us held up."

FEMA has already said it's working on the transportation issue. And last week, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen visited the trailer park and said he wanted it to be the model for other villages under construction.

While there have been a few glitches, Harris says she has nothing but praise for FEMA and the American Red Cross. "It's up to us now," she says. "We are all in the same boat, and we now have to row together."

She hasn't been back to New Orleans to see her home since hurricane Katrina hit and says she has no plans to do so. This is her new home now: "I'm not looking back."

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