MHU2.jpeg

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO -- State officials on Wednesday unveiled a three-pronged plan for housing flood victims, including a program that will bring manufactured housing units to the state for people with more severe damage.

Facing intermittent shortfalls in some kinds of manufactured housing units, FEMA has contracted with seven companies around the nation to build 3,700 such units for residents displaced by the August floods in Louisiana, officials said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said those newly built units are arriving daily and that 430 had arrived by noon Friday.

But Justo "Tito" Hernandez, FEMA's deputy federal coordinating officer for Louisiana, said that some of the 4,359 people who want these "manufactured housing units" won't be getting into them until sometime early next year.

By then, they will have been waiting five months since the severe flood that displaced more than 100,000 people across the state. While FEMA officials hope to have 2,000 families in manufactured housing units by Dec. 2 — 1,095 families were in them by Friday — they won't all be in mobile homes by the agency's earlier deadline of Dec. 15.  

Hernandez said the agency now believes it could take between 30 and 90 days from when someone registers with FEMA before they get into their housing units. 

Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the office's staff is working with FEMA to help expedite placement of manufactured housing units.

"FEMA has given assurances the agency is doing everything it can to resolve these issues as quickly as possible," he said.

Deemed a FEMA program of "last resort" for displaced residents seeking temporary housing, the mobile home program, which is designed as an 18-month bridge until people find permanent housing, has been rolling out slowly in the months since the flood.

But the fact that FEMA was dealing with inventory shortfalls only came to light earlier this week in emails that WBRZ-TV obtained between Central Mayor Jr. Shelton and FEMA operations official Mark A. Wilson.

In the emails, which The Advocate obtained on Friday, Shelton is following up on the status of Central residents seeking FEMA mobile homes.

"I can tell you that we are waiting on additional units, I believe we (sic) short on 1 and 2 bedroom units," Wilson wrote on Oct. 31 to Shelton. "Course there is no excuse."

What Wilson didn't say was that more than two weeks before this email was sent, FEMA had already sent out a request for proposals to contract with several manufacturers to start building between 100 and 400 mobile homes apiece.

In a news conference Thursday, Hernandez acknowledged the ongoing inventory problems but noted they are only for certain kinds of mobile homes at any one time, with usually another batch coming in. In a Friday interview, he added that the shortfalls don't mean the agency is completely out statewide.

"The one that is most used is the two-bedroom unit," Hernandez said. That's the one that most of the family compositions are requiring, but, then yes, we may run out in one day, but that doesn't mean that we've run out of units in the state," Hernandez said. "It just means we've run out of that particular unit size, and we have more coming."

While FEMA has three-bedroom and larger units for those with special needs, Hernandez said that one- and two-bedroom units are the most popular and the ones running into the inventory issues.

He said the move to hire the builders of manufactured housing units came as FEMA had bought 244 of them from retail lots, including 196 from lots in Louisiana. The agency also tapped its stockpile of 1,500 housing units, he said.

Hernandez said Louisiana was able get sole access to that inventory back in September, about a month before Hurricane Matthew raked across the southern Atlantic states in early October.

Steve Duke, executive director of Louisiana Manufactured Housing Association, said there was a shortfall in mobile homes in the aftermath of the floods. He said FEMA is competing for the same pool of  mobile homes as many displaced families who have the means to buy their own mobile homes without FEMA's help.

He said this has taxed existing inventory on retail lots and, with FEMA's push to hire manufacturers, will also create competition for local businesses that might have been looking to manufacturers, as well, to replenish their inventories.

Duke said he believes FEMA officials are working hard to fix the problem. He suggested the agency is too big and bureaucratic to move quickly enough and believes allowing the state to manage federal emergency funds in conjunction local industry would move faster.

"It would be so much better. It really would," Duke said.

Hernandez said FEMA didn't have more mobile homes in reserve because usually the agency deals with disasters that require a few dozen to as many as 200 mobile homes, not several thousand.

FEMA did install tens of thousands of travel trailers in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but FEMA sold off those trailers several years later after allegations of harmful formaldehyde emissions, which prompted a series of lawsuits. 

Hernandez said travel trailers now don't meet U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standards and can only be made available for short-term recreation use. 

At the same time, Hernandez acknowledged that installation of the travel trailers would happen more quickly than the larger manufactured housing units. 

He added that the manufactured housing units, which can be up to 72-feet long, also take longer when they are on private sites in front of homes because of service hookups compared with the time to install them in commercial parks. 

"But that's not what my survivors want. They want to be close to home," he said.

Of the 1,095 families in mobile homes, 978 are in private sites and 117 in commercial sites.

Shelton, the Central mayor, said Friday he was disheartened to hear how long it may take to get people in the mobile homes, noting the 30 to 90 days is much longer than the few weeks officials initially promised.

"This is going to be a mess," Shelton said. "These folks are not going be in a mobile home. One of the easiest things would be to get them in for Christmas. Now it's a mess."

Two factors cloud when FEMA might actually finish getting all people in manufactured units. The total need actually fluctuates.

As FEMA officials have spoken recently with people waiting for a trailer, some have already found other options and no longer want them.

The number dropped from 5,300 to 4,359 between Thursday and Friday, but state officials are also talking about extending the deadline to register for assistance from FEMA, which is now set to end Nov. 14, potentially adding to the pool of applicants, Hernandez said.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.