JOPLIN, Missouri (Reuters) - An affordable place to live in the wake of disasters such as superstorm Sandy can become a long-term benefit, as some survivors of the massive 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, can attest.
More than 17 months after the tornado that killed 161 people and destroyed more than 8,000 buildings, the Federal Emergency Management Agency still provides 142 furnished mobile homes free of charge to residents who have no permanent place to live.
As thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Sandy scramble for rental property and hotel rooms in the U.S. Northeast, Joplin shows just how long it can take to recover fully from a major disaster.
In the months after the Joplin tornado, FEMA provided 586 mobile homes, most of them clustered in three remote sites on the city's far north side. Today, 100 homes remain at those sites - several miles from the bustle of a rebuilding Joplin. The other 42 are scattered over several other private properties.
While free, residents said the units are nothing like home. Some residents told of financial and other problems that keep them from finding permanent housing.
The mobile home parks stand out for their sterile appearance. Every unit is bright white. So are the porch railings, the gravel driveways, even the fire hydrants.
"It's a place to live, but it's not really a place to raise a family," said Angie Edwards, as her 6-year-old son, Cameron, kicked a soccer ball against a concrete tornado shelter. "There's no yard and there's not a bunch of other kids around to play with." It is the only home her youngest child, age 1, has ever known.
As people found other places to live, units were removed and put up for auction. Those still in the FEMA homes will be expected to start paying rent on November 9.
Federal law sets an 18-month limit on free housing after disasters. FEMA decided recently to allow people to stay in the housing until as late as next June at monthly rents of $757 for three-bedroom units and $595 for two-bedroom models. They can apply for a reduced rate, based on income and other factors, said Barb Sturner, a FEMA external affairs specialist.
"We are at the point in time where our residents need to begin resuming some self-sufficiency and part of that process includes paying for their own housing," Sturner said. FEMA has extended housing beyond 18 months in other recent disasters, including the Iowa floods of 2008. Homes were used for years after Hurricane Katrina.
The free FEMA units were crucial to some tornado-displaced residents and helped stop Joplin's population from draining away, said City Manager Mark Rohr.
FEMA granted the city's request to extend the mobile home program until next June because of a continuing shortage of affordable housing, Sturner said.
Rohr reported recently that building permits were issued to replace 79 percent of the 7,500 homes and apartments destroyed in the tornado, with a lot of the work completed. In all, the city has issued $715 million in construction permits to recovery from the tornado, according to its figures.
The Joplin Chamber of Commerce said that 446 of the 553 businesses destroyed in the tornado have either reopened or are in the process, which has restored several thousand jobs.
But the rebuilding of Joplin has only gone so far for some of residents.
Edwards, who does debris cleanup for the nearby city of Duquesne, Missouri, said she is unable to find rental property because she has seven children. "I have good credit, I have never fallen behind in payments but no one will give me a chance," she said.
Leslie Armitage said she and her husband planned to move out this fall but recently learned that state assistance they expected in paying first and last month's rent is unavailable because of his income. She feels cramped in their two-bedroom home with two dogs. "I can't wait to get out, seriously," she said.
James Williamson, who works two part-time jobs as a cook at fast-food restaurants, said residents of the FEMA units face a stigma.
"There are a lot of stereotypes about FEMA trailer people - no cars, free rent, free this, free that, people not working," said Williamson, who planned to move out as he pursues his GED and better jobs. "I'm a guy who believes in moving forward."
Jason Calvin, whose lost his job as a cable TV account manager because of the tornado, said health issues and not being able to afford a car have hurt his chances of finding work. He is upset that FEMA will soon be seeking rent.
"I think that is totally asinine and ridiculous," Calvin said. "If we could afford $757 a month, we wouldn't need low-income housing."
Williamson and some other residents, do not fault FEMA.
"I'm in total agreement with them charging rent," said Williamson. "With the other price-gouging that went on after the tornado, I don't see how people can complain about what they have out here."
Johnny Straine said living in the FEMA park was an improvement over his prior residence.
"It was a big plus for me because before this I was living in a motel room and you couldn't even sleep in that place, with music going day and night," Straine said.
Several residents complained about burglaries, drug activity and other crime in the FEMA parks, but police said that has subsided. The number of calls to police dropped from 219 in October 2011 to 32 last month, said Joplin Police Lieutenant Matt Stewart.
There is a community center in one of the FEMA parks where various public and private agencies offer help seeking jobs, housing, transportation and other services. Every Monday free dinners are served. FEMA also helps people look for new housing.
"They are giving us every opportunity to get better," said Michael Anthony, who lives in one of the FEMA units. "If you are in one of these FEMA trailers and are not doing drugs or an alcoholic, you will be able to step up from this."
Editing by Greg McCune and Eric Walsh