May 19, 2009 / 5:17 PM / in 8 years

Made homeless by Katrina, and now FEMA

<p>Trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sit in a lot in Diamond, Louisiana, south of New Orleans July 26, 2006. REUTERS/Lee Celano</p>

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Nancy Menne has been living in a government-issued trailer since August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina swamped her home in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans in 9 feet of water.

Come May 30, the deadline for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repossess the trailers, Menne may be sleeping in her truck.

While waiting to get the house repaired, Menne, who works nights as a waitress in a French Quarter restaurant, has lived in the trailer parked on the front lawn of her house.

“My house withstood the hurricane. It was the government’s levees that broke and ruined it,” she said, gesturing at the house, which still lacks siding. “Now I have this trailer, and they’re going to take that away too.”

Over 2,500 Louisiana residents who are still living in FEMA-provided trailers received notice recently that the agency’s temporary housing program ended on May 1. They must vacate the trailers by May 30, the agency said.

In some ways, the flimsy, formaldeyde-tainted trailers have become a symbol of the Bush administration’s botched response to the storm, which flooded 80 percent of the city, killed 1,500 people and caused more than $80 billion in damage.

FEMA has become a four-letter word to many local residents, and Bush’s oft-ridiculed remark to then-disaster chief Michael Brown: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” is a local joke.

After the temporary program ends, “FEMA will continue to work closely with the remaining households to help them secure state and federal support for their long-term housing needs,” agency spokesman Clark Stevens said.

FEMA has already helped 90,000 Louisiana households find more permanent housing, Stevens said.

Menne, 47, said she had nowhere else to go if FEMA turned her out of her trailer. “I’ll have to live in my truck,” she said, pointing to the small red pickup in her driveway.

The U.S. government spent more than $3.5 billion providing some 92,000 temporary housing units for Louisiana residents displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The abandoned trailers are stacking up in Southern rural towns like Purvis, Mississippi. The government is giving them away to federal and state agencies by the hundreds.

THE ROAD HOME

Almost four years later, most trailer residents have returned to their permanent homes, but some are still struggling to regain their footing.

Menne’s house isn’t ready to live in, a problem faced by many other FEMA trailer residents. A small insurance settlement and the $41,000 she received through Louisiana’s “Road Home” program didn’t cover the needed repairs. She has been paying for the work from her own pocket and has had trouble getting contractors to stay on the job.

Soaring rents in New Orleans have further complicated a difficult housing situation. HUD estimates that average rents in the city have risen by more than 52 percent since Katrina.

“I see the affordable rental market in New Orleans as tough right now, but improving every day as we stabilize the market by bringing more rentals online,” said Paul Rainwater, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

But a local nonprofit group warns that more “affordable” housing has a downside. The Bureau of Governmental Research says New Orleans already has 21 percent more subsidized housing than it had in 2005, and building more will further aggravate the region’s concentration of poverty in the core city.

HUD figures compiled by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center show that blighted housing dropped by 3 percent in the past year. Still, with 31 percent of all residential properties either unoccupied or blighted, the city continues to lead all U.S. cities in blight.

Editing by Chris Baltimore and Peter Cooney

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