Katrina, Rita Victims Feel Trapped in FEMA Trailers

It was bad enough when Hurricane Katrina chased Carrie Lewis out of her assisted-living home in New Orleans. Now she fears the rest of her life may be spent in the isolation of a federally sponsored trailer park.

Because hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed so much affordable housing, Lewis and thousands of others displaced — mainly the poor, elderly and infirm — have nowhere else to go.

"I want to go home," said Lewis, 79, who now lives in the Renaissance Village trailer park. "They don't have places for old people in New Orleans yet. What am I supposed to do? I don't want to die in a little trailer in the middle of a field somewhere."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided 120,000 trailers to people displaced from their Gulf Coast homes by the 2005 hurricanes.

Pamela Lomis and her two children feel abandoned. Lomis lives in a FEMA trailer in the Sugar Hill trailer park in the midst of cane fields near Convent, La., about midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

It's 20 miles from the nearest grocery store. A single bus leaves each morning at 9 a.m. and returns at 4 p.m., Lomis' life line to a world that seems distant.

"We just sit around here with life slipping by," Lomis said. "We're just on hold. Just waiting for something that never comes," she said.

She isn't alone.

"Our biggest challenge is finding housing for people," said Mario "Sam" Sammartino, who supervises Catholic Services caseworkers at Louisiana's FEMA trailer parks. "What's left here is the poorest of the poor. Anyone with a job or a house has already left."

Many of the hurricane evacuees from New Orleanians didn't own homes or lived in the city's 5,100 public housing units. But federal officials plan to tear down four projects and replace them with mixed-income developments, and private rental housing — if it can be found — is expensive.

Sammartino and others working to resettle residents believe it will take at least five years to clear the FEMA parks. About 45,000 trailers are still occupied in Louisiana, 20,000 in Mississippi, 17,000 in Texas and 400 in Alabama.

Along with the isolation and cramped quarters in the trailers, now there are claims the trailers themselves are making people sick.

Reports of illness had trickled in to FEMA, but documents presented to Congress recently showed FEMA discouraged investigation of formaldehyde in its trailers. The chemical, commonly found in manufactured housing, can cause respiratory ailments and even cancer.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention workers began collecting samples last week from FEMA trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi.

"That's just one more thing on the list of things I worry about," said Helen Felton, who lives in a trailer at Renaissance Village.

"I want out of this trailer, out of this place, but I get my little Social Security check. Do you know how far $660 goes?" asked Felton.

Those who remain in the trailers will start paying rent to FEMA in 2008, starting with a modest $50 a month and then rising.

"How are you going to pay if you don't have money," asked Sharon Norah, 50, who lives on disability assistance in a Renaissance Village trailer with her 9-year-old son, Calvin.

Renaissance Village, with 565 trailers about 100 miles northwest of New Orleans, is the Taj Mahal of FEMA parks, said Carol Spruell of Catholic Charities. Unlike some others, it has a basketball court, a tent for community activities, laundry rooms and a playground. Volunteer groups provide health care, mental health services and educational services.

There is bus service to Baton Rouge, about 15 miles away, but the hours in which it runs limit employment options for people like Albert Renfroe, 57, a cook in New Orleans before Katrina.

"I'd like to get back to something more normal," said Renfroe. "But if I could get a job I don't have a way to get back from it. The bus just doesn't run late enough."

FEMA is pushing to get people out of trailers, said spokesman Bob Josephson. All hurricane-related housing assistance ends in March 2009, but replacement housing has been slow to develop in some areas such as New Orleans.

"We do provide rental assistance," Josephson said, but the help is temporary.

"We have a difficult challenge, particularly with people on fixed incomes," he said.