Two months after the south Louisiana floods killed 13 people and displaced more than 100,000, federal authorities finally are installing mobile homes in earnest – though not fast enough for Don Young, who because of the rules will have to sleep on the concrete floor of his mucked-out house for at least a couple more months.
Installing the new and improved FEMA trailers – correctly called Mobile Housing Units or MHUs – has been frustratingly slow even for the man in charge.
“The biggest challenge we have right now is setting up the mobile homes and getting power to them,” FEMA’s Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer Justo “Tito” Hernandez said. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency effort is moving faster.For s
A congressional subcommittee hauled FEMA before a hearing Sept. 11 and asked why only one unit was inhabited at the time. What they found was a sheaf of rules and an agency caught like a deer in the headlights, “terrified to do things” for fear of being castigated, in the words of one congressman.
In the month since that hearing, FEMA has been able to relax some rules. For instance, one of the big initial holdups was that the units could not be placed in flood zones established on FEMA maps. Now mobile homes can be erected just about anywhere, with a few exceptions in the most flood-prone areas.
And FEMA will pay the rent on a recreational vehicle if survivors decide they’d rather have something more like the FEMA trailers of old in their driveway.
But if the homeowner wants the comfort and safety of a mobile home – which costs about $60,000 to build, $20,000 to transport and another $10,000 to install – then they’re still going to have to wait several weeks.
Mobile Housing Units are a last resort offered to survivors whose homes are severely damaged, but who have a plan for repair and few other housing options.
State and local officials said Thursday a lack of rental options for flood victims means mor…
The units need to be shoehorned onto the property, stabilized, ramps or stairs need to be built, water and sewerage lines tapped, electricity connected, and then everything inspected for safety.
The new units are larger, some have three bedrooms and come with safety features, such as smoke detectors.
As of Thursday afternoon, Hernandez said, 1,150 mobile homes had been installed. When all is said and done, FEMA expects to erect 4,407 mobile homes. But authorities are constantly reviewing their lists to see if more can be added, Hernandez said. “Our systems are getting better each day. But it still takes some time.”
Don Young, a 55-year-old pilot, just left the FEMA Disaster Assistance tent in Central last week, where he tried to figure out what to do. His residence has been mucked out – stripped of sodden drywall down to the studs, carpets and flooring removed to the concrete. FEMA told him around Labor Day that he was in line for a mobile home.
A month later, he discovered that because he had a place to live, a friend’s camper, others would get their MHUs first. Now he has to give up the camper, but still is near the back of the line.
“They said it’ll be a month or two,” Young said, adding that he was headed to buy an inflatable mattress.
That arrangement is happening a lot as close-by hotels and apartments are full. Survivors have to travel an hour or more to get to work and deliver children to school, said Republican state Rep. Clay Schexnayder, of Gonzales. Flood waters flowed right through the middle of his district in Livingston and Ascension parishes, damaging the homes of almost every constituent.
Families are living in Kenner and having to commute 90 minutes each way. Schexnayder said many fathers are spending the night alone in the mucked-out family homes, protecting from looting and making repairs as they can when not at work.
“This is causing incredible stresses on families,” Schexnayder said. “The new MHUs are really, really nice. But, what people need is something now. The trailers will do. It’s not that important that they’re super comfortable.”
It’s not that simple.
FEMA used a few hundred trailers in 1992 to house victims who lost their homes after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida. They rolled out dozens more a few years later in the Tampa area after Hurricane Charley.
But the federal government was unprepared for an event as widespread as Hurricane Katrina, followed a few weeks later in 2005 by Hurricane Rita. Suddenly, about 145,000 travel trailers were needed.
They could roll the cramped one-room trailers into driveways, run an extension cord, hook up the water and the homeowner was good to go.
But the solution wasn’t necessarily a good one as restoration stretched into months, even years in some cases. And the rush to get enough units led to manufacturing lapses.
Within a couple months in 2006, survivors began complaining of headaches, breathing problems and nose bleeds. Tests found levels of formaldehyde, a cancer-causing chemical commonly found in building materials, were about five times the levels people are exposed to in most modern homes.
A class action lawsuit was filed against two dozen FEMA trailer manufacturers and installers. U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, of New Orleans, approved a $42.6 million settlement in September 2012 open to about 55,000 residents of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
In May 2011, FEMA decided to move from travel travelers to the manufactured units.
FEMA will pay the rent if the homeowner wants to go the travel trailer route. But the only direct housing the agency will supply is the MHU.
Hernandez points out that, as cumbersome as the newer units are, they have been built to specific standards and are lashed down to survive most storms.
But installing them is a process and the biggest hurdle is getting the electricity hooked up. Theoretically, it takes about 20 minutes to hang the meter. But that’s assuming everything is ready to go, which it often isn’t.
FEMA-hired contractors have to get the electrical connection with a few feet of the mobile home and erect a pole for a new meter. If that means going through a neighbor’s property, and that’s often the case, permissions are needed to dig up someone else's yard.
Then, there’s issue of opening a new, usually second, account for the MHU. The homeowner has to call the utility company on his or her own. Hernandez said there’s a lot of miscommunication over that step, even though instructions say to do so.
If the customer’s utility bill is in arrears, that needs to be dealt with before a new meter can be installed.
Entergy started holding daily meetings to make sure everyone is on the same page before the company sends crews out, said Greg Guilbeau, Entergy Louisiana’s senior manager of customer service.
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Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry says communication remains a problem and town officials shouldn’t have to intervene to accomplish simple tasks FEMA workers should be able handle. “I realize they have a monumental task, but the left hand rarely knows what the right hand is doing,” Landry said.
FEMA’s Hernandez says the fear that frustrated survivors will give up keeps him up at night. “They need to keep after it. We may be slow but we’re coming,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, whose congressional district includes north Baton Rouge neighborhoods that flooded, said a lot of the slowness is coming from FEMA officials who are “terrified to do things” for fear of being castigated by the Inspector General’s Office or hauled before Congress and forced to recoup improperly expended monies from survivors.
“If we try to devise a program that is fraud proof, then you’re going to see a program with some hurdles that (cause) hard-working, honest people to decide 'it’s not worth my time,'” Richmond, D-New Orleans, said during a congressional hearing. He’s looking to put together a revamp by the end of the year that would relax some of the congressional mandates, thus giving FEMA more flexibility.
“It’s not about fraud and abuse. But it’s about getting FEMA the discretion to make decisions without fear, because fear is holding up the process,” Richmond said.