BAKER, La. Cleveland Stampley grinned as he locked the door to his FEMA trailer one last time. Out front, a case worker's pickup truck waited to take him to his new home at a nearby apartment complex.
"Hope I ain't got to come back here for nothing else," the 59-year-old said as he carried one last load of belongings to the truck.
Stampley was among the last Louisiana residents displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 being moved from the state's remaining six trailer parks managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA planned to close all six by today the official start of hurricane season but said it would take a few more days to move everyone into apartments or motels.
The last FEMA-managed trailer park in Mississippi closed in May, but by Saturday, the state still had eight group sites for mobile homes open.
More than 800 families have come through Renaissance Village, where Stampley was living, since it opened in October 2005. By Saturday, only about 40 of the 575 units were occupied, and more than 20 of those households already have apartments to move into in the coming days, FEMA spokesman Manuel Broussard said.
Broussard said FEMA is working to find proper housing for the remaining households. That hasn't been easy since Katrina wiped out much of the region's affordable housing and sent rents soaring in greater New Orleans.
As of Saturday, only about 350 of the state's 15,912 FEMA trailers or mobile homes were in trailer parks, said spokesman Andrew Thomas. Thousands of people still live in trailers on private property, generally in front of hurricane-damaged homes they're fixing up or on lots they're rebuilding. In those cases, FEMA is helping municipalities in their efforts to get rid of the trailers.
There's a sense of urgency, underscored by Saturday's FEMA deadline for its parks. One reason is that tests of hundreds of trailers found high levels of formaldehyde, a preservative commonly used in building materials that can cause breathing problems and is classified as a carcinogen.
Stampley blames formaldehyde for aggravating his asthma and bronchitis.
"The symptoms got worse after I moved here," he said.
Most of the families leaving the trailer parks are eligible for government-subsidized housing until March 2009. Those who can't prove where they were living when the hurricanes struck, or who are ineligible for other reasons, get one more month in an apartment or motel room paid for by FEMA.
Many park residents, like Sharon Barthelemy, said they felt conflicted about leaving the FEMA parks.
"It's sad in a way. Everybody here became friends and neighbors. Everyone could sit down and talk to each other," said Barthelemy, who was moving with her husband from the Renaissance Village park into a one-bedroom apartment in Baker on Saturday.
Freddie King, who owns a home across the street from the fenced-in trailer park, said he was happy to see his hometown help storm victims, most of whom hailed from New Orleans.
"A lot of neighbors didn't feel the same," the 68-year-old said. "They didn't want to see them there."