A new place to go after a disaster

West Virginia is setting aside housing for victims of local floods - or national emergencies.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The image of sodden, downtrodden New Orleans residents picking up the pieces of their lives from a wrecked Gulf and inhabiting cruise ships and hotels is a black mark on the American zeitgeist.

Survivors of a future national emergency may make a beeline for the West Virginia mountains - to live in ready-made evacuee villages until they can get back on their feet.

Indeed, the Mountain State has approved a landmark plan to buy five plots of land and set it aside to house several hundred people in an emergency. The state is funding four sites while the fifth eight-acre area will be financed by a $600,000 federal grant.

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The mobile home communities are intended mainly for West Virginia residents to escape the near-perennial mountain floods that have resulted in six federal disaster declarations in the last five years. The land, however, can also be used for a national emergency such as hurricane Katrina.

Federal officials say it is the nation's first plan to establish permanent housing for people displaced by natural disasters. West Virginia's novel concept comes at a time when America is grappling with how to prepare for the next national population migration - whether it's the coming of a hurricane, an earthquake or a terrorist attack.

"In areas where natural disasters are frequent and fairly predictable, you might have these predesigned, predeveloped locations - ghost towns waiting for occupancy," says Peter Davis, a former FEMA emergency housing manager, and a business professor at the University of Memphis. "It offers an opportunity to test certain kinds of actions that could be used to mitigate adverse consequences of dislocating small- to medium-sized populations."

Local, state, and federal emergency management officials are mulling over how to improve FEMA's strategy of using trailer parks and housing vouchers to help disaster survivors.

Today, FEMA has largely been improvising on the ground as 600,000 households have been uprooted and 40,000 people are still housed in hotel rooms spread mostly across 10 Southern states. Others have found refuge in emergency mobile home communities because of hurricane Katrina.

Having empty and available housing in a more remote location may be an expedient solution, some say.

Permanent trailer parks would cut the expenses of creating roads, digging pipes, and installing wires that now inflate the cost of each temporary trailer to about $140,000. So far, FEMA has invested most of its money in mobile homes, spending $3 billion to order and keep an inventory of 125,000.

"If you look at disaster literature, a pre-made sort of site may provide the opportunity for families and communities to rebuild, to create emotional bonds, to get on with personal recovery, build foundations for something further down the road," says Jim Elliott, a sociologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, La.

For their part, critics say that distance from jobs and services only isolates long-term evacuees. To buttress their argument, they cite the 200 crime incidents that were reported every month in a Florida trailer park built after hurricane Charley.

These evacuee villages may also continue the class and race segregation that were evident in the aftermath of Katrina. Some say segregation along class and racial lines is inevitable since it's still mostly poor people who live on the most flood-prone American bottomlands.

And few survivors may go along with being transported to a trailer far from their home. "[Victims] want to restart where they have relatives or friends - not in the middle of West Virginia," says Ed Olsen, a housing expert at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.

Mr. Olsen and others would rather see a policy built around expanding and improving the dispersion of Section 8 housing vouchers for low-income households. They would then be able to afford apartments in cities and communities across the country, making use of a record nationwide rental vacancy rate now hovering around 10 percent.

The downside, they say, is that a massive relocation may guarantee that most of those displaced will not return.

"The administration is not supportive of Section 8 housing vouchers, and the last thing they want is to create a larger constituency for this program, and it's a shame because it's more cost-efficient and it works," says Amy Liu, of the Metropolitan Policy Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

While West Virginia's mountain floods are commonplace, the "ghost town" plan may not be able to be replicated on the coast or other locations where disasters are random. And many states may also balk at taking such a housing gamble.

"You'd have to be willing to invest in infrastructure away from the main population, because you're going to let it sit fallow for years at a time awaiting some unknown future," says Mr. Davis, the former FEMA housing manager. "There's always going to be pressure to simply close it down ... the uncertainty that surrounds [natural disasters] means that people who say, 'Let's prepare for shifting populations' sound like they're crying wolf."

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