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Difficulties Beset FEMA’s Plans To Rehouse Victims of Katrina

By Leslie Eaton 
and Eric Lipton
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

After Hurricane Katrina left hundreds of thousands of people homeless, the Federal Emergency Management Agency signed contracts for more than $2 billion in temporary housing, including more than 125,000 trailers and mobile homes. But just 109 Louisiana families are living in those units.

A month after the disaster, the federal government’s temporary housing effort is stumbling.

The inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security said Wednesday that FEMA is freezing many orders for trailers, although the agency disputes that. Members of Congress, complaining that a $236 million deal to lease four ships to house evacuees was far too expensive, are calling for an investigation. And a rival FEMA program to give victims cash to find their own housing has already drawn 332,000 applications.

Federal officials acknowledge that the housing program has moved slowly , especially in Louisiana. But they are blaming the state for the trouble.

“We as a federal government can’t come in and just place anything anywhere,” said James McIntyre, a FEMA spokesman. “This is not a takeover. We have to work within the limitations by state and local officials.”

Louisiana officials, though, have been working tirelessly to find spots for the trailers, said Kim Hunter Reed, director of policy and planning for Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.

Though the process is too cumbersome and should be streamlined, she said, “We are working as fast and as hard as we can to make this happen. We have thousands of people in shelters who are past ready to move.”

More than 45,000 people remain in shelters in Louisiana, according to the governor’s office, and about 30,000 are in shelters in other states. For those who want to stay in Louisiana, FEMA’s new cash and voucher programs are not a solution, Reed said, because there is no vacant housing.

Some housing experts say it would make sense for the government to scrap plans for large-scale FEMAvilles, or even the smaller 500-unit trailer parks that the agency says it now envisions.

“There are a lot of problems with trailers,” said Susan J. Popkin of the Urban Institute, a non-partisan think tank. “You’re concentrating people in the middle of nowhere, and once they’re there, its very hard for them to get out.”

Especially if displaced families get relocation help and other social services, she said, they would be better off moving to places with existing schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. “People’s basic needs go beyond a roof,” she said.

FEMA is leasing three ships from Carnival Cruise Lines and a fourth from Scotia Prince Lines; together, they can hold 8,116 people.

As of Wednesday, 3,726 people were on the ships when a census was taken, suggesting they may be less than half full. FEMA officials say that understates occupancy, because not all guests are on the ship at any given time.