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Family portrait, from left, Miracle Phillips, 13, Chauncy Phillips, 19, Clifford "Yockadocious" Pate and Rosetta Pate at their home Tuesday Nov. 21, 2017, in Baton Rouge, La. People who are still displaced after the August 2016 floods are having Thanksgiving in FEMA trailers. Rosetta Pate was in the hospital being treated for bone cancer when the floods happened. She lost her leg and moved straight from the hospital to her family's FEMA trailer.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

Rosetta Pate beat lung cancer in 1999, breast cancer nine years later, and finally last year, she successfully battled bone cancer but lost her right leg in the process.

While Pate was in the hospital for four months receiving treatment and surgery, her house took on more than 8 feet of water during the August 2016 floods that devastated Baton Rouge area communities. Her family was able to recover only a few photographs off the walls. Everything else was ruined.

She and her husband and two teenage children received their FEMA trailer in the fall of 2016 — one of many flood-displaced families living in a mobile home park near the Baton Rouge airport — and Pate soon learned how to maneuver her new wheelchair within the space constraints of their temporary home.

More than a year later, her family is celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday there but planning to move back into their house before Christmas.

She and several other residents living in FEMA manufactured housing units said that the close quarters make for cramped holiday celebrations. But they aren’t complaining. Having recently experienced unexpected loss, flood survivors said they are thankful for the opportunity to celebrate at all.

Of the roughly 4,500 households that temporarily relocated into trailers, less than half have successfully moved back into their houses, according to FEMA records. About 2,350 households were still in trailers early this week.

Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Sharon Karr said that as things stand right now, families have until Feb. 14, 2018, to return home because the housing program ends 18 months after the disaster declaration. She said the agency expects to see growing numbers of people moving out of trailers within the next few months. 

However, people who are unable to move out by the deadline — through no fault of their own — could make an arrangement with FEMA to pay rent and remain in their units. Rental rates would be determined according to fair market value, and residents would also be charged a penalty fee of $550 per month, Karr said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration earlier this month asked FEMA to extend its deadline by 90 days, estimating more than 1,000 families won't be ready to move by the current cutoff date. 

Pate, 47, and her family are cooking the usual for Thanksgiving dinner this year: turkey, cornbread dressing, green bean casserole, dessert. The kitchen is smaller than inside their house, “but we make it work,” Pate said. “We could be living in a hotel room or outside. This trailer is a blessing.” 

The unit has three bedrooms and two bathrooms with a combined kitchen and living area. The mobile homes awarded to flood survivors last year are significantly larger and sturdier than those available after Katrina, which received heated criticism for subpar living conditions.

Pate made arrangements for her family to receive a trailer by calling FEMA from her hospital bed. After the flood, her husband initially stayed with her at the hospital. Their two children, ages 13 and 19, stayed with their older sister, who rents an apartment nearby.

They had flood insurance, but the renovations took longer than expected, Pate said. At one point, someone stole a new air conditioning unit out of their front yard. 

Pate has a genetic condition that causes tumors to form on nerve tissue both inside and outside the body. She recently received a prosthetic leg and is learning how to use it effectively. She also plans to take driving lessons and relearn how to drive with her left foot.

Having survived three types of cancer already, she said appreciating the things that matter most comes naturally to her.

“We just have to thank God for what we have, and thank Him because the ones who are here are still with us,” she said. “Last year (after the floods) I was just thankful all the kids were safe. Material things are just material, they can be replaced. … I try to stay positive because thinking about the negatives will make you lose your mind.”

Howard Burdette, 78, is also navigating flood recovery while dealing with extensive health issues. He and his wife and adult daughter are living in a FEMA trailer on their Old Jefferson property.

His grandson is living in the house and working on the renovations, but Burdette said he has a feeling those won’t be finished by Feb. 14 — the last day of the FEMA program when trailer recipients will either have to move out or start paying rent. With flood insurance and FEMA and the Restore Louisiana Homeowner's Assistance Program, the sheer quantity of paperwork slowed down the rebuilding process, he said.

Burdette has been confined to a wheelchair for several months because his osteoarthritis prevents him from walking. But that doesn’t stop him from continuing to pursue one of his favorite pastimes: cooking.

Many of his recipes were lost in the floods, but he was able to recover some, including his mom’s apple cake — one of a few dishes he was considering for Thanksgiving dessert. His wife also recently came home from the hospital after receiving treatment for high blood pressure, which, Burdette said, gave the family good reason to spend Thanksgiving at home this year.

He said the kitchen in the FEMA trailer is “definitely not the most desirable situation” because there isn’t really enough room to invite friends over. Nonetheless they plan to cook a turkey and plenty of sides as well as dessert.

The family bought their house in 2004 and were displaced for several months after a stovetop fire caused significant damage. After repairs were completed in January 2014, they moved back in. Less than three years later, the floods came. 

“We have experienced a lifetime of devastation in only a few years,” Burdette said on a recent afternoon, rolling slowly back and forth in his wheelchair and looking out at the street through the door of his FEMA trailer. “I really can’t see us being out of here by February, so I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Steve and Rebecca Clapper also live in the Old Jefferson neighborhood with their two grandchildren, ages 13 and 14, and they’re hoping to move out of their FEMA trailer and back into their house just before Christmas.

But in the meantime, they expect to have seven people for Thanksgiving dinner, which will require rearranging the furniture slightly to accommodate everyone. All things considered, the trailer has served them very well, Steve Clapper said. “We could use some more counter space, but that’s about it.”

In the wake of the floods last year, they decorated a small potted plant with lights and ornaments. This year they’re hoping for a bona fide Christmas tree. 

Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.