Tent cities spur frustration on Gulf Coast

Thousands of FEMA trailers are sitting empty in Arkansas, irking residents and lawmakers.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

While Athena Cuevas hunkers down on a moldy mattress in a scavenged tent in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, 10,477 US government trailers slated for Katrina survivors sit empty in Hope, Ark.

Ms. Cuevas's ragged dome tents are part of a network of official and unofficial tent cities - in the woods and along railroad tracks up and down the Gulf Coast.

For many, leaving is not an option even though hurricane season is less than two months away. "This [area] is my home," Cuevas says adamantly. "I'm not going anywhere."

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But getting tent residents into sturdier abodes has been a tough task. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says it seeks to stop fraud by requiring people to provide proof of their previous residence in the area. The agency also ensures that trailers are placed out of floodzones, as legally required.

But people making their homes in tents reflects poor planning and inflexible management, critics say. And it shows how the social safety net is fraying, others add.

"This reminds me of the very cautious, clumsy policy responses of the Hoover administration" during the early years of the Great Depression, says Guian McKee, a policy professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "The response is on an ad hoc basis, essentially relying on faith ... that the problem will solve itself. But for many [working poor], it's hard to pull yourself up by the bootstrap when the bootstrap's been taken away."

Today, some 133 households live in organized tent cities in Pass Christian, D'Iberville, and Long Beach, according to FEMA. But officials count at least three dozen other households in unofficial tent cities in the area. The agency, meanwhile, has delivered 40,000 mobile homes to survivors in Mississippi since Katrina hit.

"We've been monitoring the tent situation very carefully," says Nicole Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman. "Some people ... aren't eligible [for a trailer] or don't want assistance from FEMA, but I think it's a low percentage."

Sens. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas and Harry Reid (D) of Nevada see things differently. They have hammered the Department of Homeland Security to use the mobile homes in Hope. "All this comes back to people still living in tents when they shouldn't have to be," says Michael Teague, a spokesman for Senator Pryor.

FEMA tries to help those who do not receive homes in other ways. "People are not 'turned down' [for trailers], they are always referred to other means of assistance, including rental assistance or repair grants to make their own homes safe and livable," says Eugene Brezany, a FEMA spokesman.

There is a plan to move 5,000 mobile homes, but state officials have not been told where they will go. Regulations have worsened the situation, says Mr. Teague.

One requirement mandates that FEMA crews maintain the trailers - instead of signing responsibility over to tenants. However, if the maintenance crews didn't have to inspect every home, the agency could have more flexibility in the placement of its trailers rather than situating them together in easily maintained parks.

Another rule allows campers, but not trailers, to be put in potential flood areas - even in places where residents will eventually rebuild. Congress is working on a bill that would waive that regulation so the trailers in Arkansas can get to Katrina survivors, especially in Mississippi.

Some relief workers defend FEMA's efforts to ease the housing crunch after a storm that devastated 90,000 square miles of the Gulf Coast - an area slightly larger than Kansas. So far, the agency has housed nearly 3,000 volunteers in two separate tent cities in New Orleans, but those may soon be closed down.

"The federal government has done a lot" and provided a great deal of money for temporary housing evacuation situations, says Jerry Klassen, Gulf States coordinator for Mennonite Disaster Services in Pass Christian, Miss.

It hasn't helped Heath Ray. Looking out over the azure Gulf lapping near the camp, Mr. Ray says he moved to Long Beach two months before Katrina hit. His name was not on the lease of the apartment he shared with a friend. "I was turned down flat" for a trailer, he says.

Christopher Cheyenne Cothern, who is staying with Cuevas and Mr. Ray, hasn't applied. He's not a previous resident, and drifted into the area.

Cuevas, with no phone or resources, couldn't prove she is a lifelong resident of Long Beach, she says. The former waitress found tents in the woods, which had washed out of a Wal-Mart. She has been camping out for 2-1/2 months.

Meanwhile, nearby, a FEMA camper - hooked up with water and electricity - has been sitting empty for about four months. Some people who have been granted mobile homes and campers haven't yet been able to return to the area to take up residence, FEMA says.

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