Temporary FEMA housing units expected to return to Louisiana

FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016, file photo, President Barack Obama hugs Marlene Sanders as he visits with with residents of Castle Place, a flood-damaged area of Baton Rouge, La. (Ted Jackson/NOLA.com The Times-Picayune via AP, File)

BATON ROUGE, La. — Thousands of south Louisiana residents remain stuck in shelters, living in hotels or staying in the spare bedrooms of family and friends after flooding ravaged their homes, creating a housing crunch that will bring back temporary housing units like those that dotted the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Just don't call it a FEMA trailer.

The much-maligned travel trailer that filled front yards and miles of vacant property in south Louisiana and Mississippi a decade ago became a symbol of everything that had gone wrong with the federal disaster response to the destructive 2005 hurricane. Families were crammed into tiny trailers that drew health worries after toxic levels of formaldehyde were found.

Gov. John Bel Edwards unveiled a package of transitional housing programs Wednesday for Louisiana's latest residents displaced by disaster. Among those are mobile homes not unlike the trailers used for Katrina victims.

While the Democratic governor underscored that "this is not the preferred option," he also drew a contrast to the old FEMA travel trailers used a decade ago. He said the mobile homes meet higher regulatory standards, are already owned by FEMA and are manufactured by one company rather than the myriad of vendors that built the travel trailers. They'll be on blocks and strapped down, not on wheels.

"These are not the same as FEMA trailers that have been used in the past," Edwards said. He added: "Hopefully they will hold up better and offer a safer place for people to live."

It wasn't immediately clear when the first mobile homes would be set up or how many people would need them, but the governor said he met a man with a flood-damaged home in East Baton Rouge Parish who said his property already had been measured and inspected by FEMA to determine if it would be suitable for one of the units.

"It's going to ramp up over the next several days," said Gerard Stolar, FEMA's regional director.

The manufactured housing units will be available for people who don't live in a designated flood plain to set up in their yards as they repair houses. For those in a flood zone, the mobile homes will have to be set up at trailer parks or other commercial property still being identified.

Homeowners with less catastrophic damage may be eligible for a "shelter at home" program that will provide grants up to $15,000, aimed at quickly making houses habitable. Registration for that program will begin Monday. Edwards said that's the more desirable option, because it "helps bring communities back together" quickly.

The housing problems are widespread. Entire neighborhoods were inundated with water, making homes uninhabitable, filled with mildewed carpets and warped cabinets. People have spent days gutting houses, stripping out furniture, walls and flooring. But some houses still could take days or weeks to dry out — and repairs could take even longer.

Described as the worst disaster since Superstorm Sandy in 2012, a storm that started Aug. 12 dumped as much as 2 feet of rain in some areas over two days, blamed for 13 deaths. Edwards estimated the flooding damaged more than 100,000 homes. About 2,600 people remained in shelters Wednesday, and more than 119,000 households have registered for federal aid.

Displaced by the flooding, Margaret Krumholt welcomes a trailer — or whatever type of mobile housing FEMA and the state want to offer — so her family could move back to their damaged property.

Krumholt, 46, and two of her children have been staying at a hotel in Hammond since their Denham Springs house flooded. Her husband is staying with his mother and the family's two dogs.

"We barely see each other. Our family is just kind of scattered right now," said Krumholt, in line at an aid distribution center outside of a flooded church where food, clothing and other supplies were being distributed.

President Obama toured the flood damage Tuesday and promised an effective and rapid federal response.

Jessica Jones, 39, greeted the idea of a FEMA trailer without objection Wednesday. The single mother of three has been staying at her boss' home in Baton Rouge, with no long-term plans of where she'll go since her Livingston Parish home was damaged in the flooding.

"It's very important that we stay where we're at. I don't have a lot of family down here," she said.


Kunzelman contributed to this story from Denham Springs.

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