New Orleans moves to get rid of last FEMA trailers

By Cain Burdeau

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 31 2010 4:30 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Dec. 28, 2010, Edwin D. Weber Jr. stands outside the FEMA trailer he shares with his brother in New Orleans. Citing the 221 trailers left in the city as blight, New Orleans officials have given the last folks living in temporary FEMA trailers until the end of the year to move out or face fines. For many people, though, the white trailers are akin to permanent homes and they will find it hard to move out.

Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — The era of the FEMA trailer — a symbol of the prolonged rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina — might be drawing to a close in New Orleans.

Citing the remaining 221 trailers as blight, New Orleans officials have told the last remaining residents to be out by the start of 2011 or face steep fines.

New Orleans once had more than 23,000 FEMA trailers, and for many people still living in them, they are akin to permanent homes. These residents say they will find it hard to make the city's deadline.

Edwin Weber Jr., 62, lives with his brother in a trailer crammed with stuff. He was seething at a "notice of violation" letter taped to his door shortly before Christmas.

The letter said he would be fined — up to $500 a day — unless he took "immediate action" to move out. He said the notice was "worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge himself."

Engulfed by vines, Weber's trailer looks like a permanent fixture in the Gentilly Woods neighborhood in front of a home his family has owned since the 1950s. The house, Weber acknowledged, is still in bad shape.

"I haven't got the gas on yet. But I got water and electricity, so it is livable," he said, looking at the battered home. He reckoned he could move into the house, if they were forced to.

The house was flooded by 6 feet of water, but after Katrina, he opted not to take federal housing aid, administered through the state's Road Home program, because he didn't trust the bureaucracy handling the money. Insurance claims have paid for some repairs to the house, he said.

He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency offered to house them outside the city, but they refused.

"I don't know what the big deal about trailers is," he said. "It's not like a hundred trailers is going to make the city look any worse than it is. It's not like the city has been fixed and repaired and these are the remaining eyesores."

Ann Duplessis, the city's deputy chief administrative officer, said city officials will be compassionate in considering each resident's case but hope to have most of the trailers removed within three months. "There may be some lingering, for that little old lady who has no place and no money," she said.

Still, she said the city will take a tough stance. "These trailers were meant to be temporary, not a permanent fixture."

She said many remaining trailer residents simply have not done enough to get out and refused to consider alternative housing. "People have to assume some responsibility for their decision," she said.

FEMA installed about 200,000 temporary housing units — travel trailers, park models and mobile homes — on the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the region in 2005. Louisiana got about 91,860 units and Mississippi about 44,000. There are 106 FEMA trailers left in Mississippi. Across Louisiana, about 520 remain.

According to FEMA, New Orleans got 23,314 trailers.

The few remaining are on the hit list of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who's vowed to rid New Orleans of blight by eliminating 10,000 broken-down properties over the next three years.

"This administration wants to turn a page on Katrina," said Gary Clark, a Dillard University political science professor. "The FEMA trailer has become an icon of Katrina."

But some advocates fear Landrieu's zeal to eliminate blight will hurt poor people struggling to find their way in New Orleans more than five years after Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city in August 2005.

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