NEW ORLEANS – Lingering fears about formaldehyde fumes inside federally issued trailers and the impending hurricane season have Mayor Ray Nagin pushing to empty thousands of the structures, intended as temporary housing after Katrina.
With the third anniversary of Katrina coming up Aug. 29, the push is the first for the city, where most of the remaining trailers sit on private property as residents continue to rebuild their homes.
"We need to get everybody out," Nagin said. "We need to find out if anybody's health has been harmed and how do we deal with that, and find the housing that's necessary so these people can get their lives together."
Nearly 5,700 trailers remain in New Orleans, most on the private property of residents who lost their homes to Katrina.
"I want to be gone as much as anybody," said KC King, whose home was heavily damaged by Katrina and later demolished. He said he has been dealing with a series of contractor delays in rebuilding.
Federal, state and local efforts are under way to assist families with housing needs. It's probable that some families now in trailers will end up in hotels or apartments, at least temporarily.
But Nagin, in an interview late last week, said he has no choice but to push an end to use of the trailers, given health concerns and the June 1 start of the hurricane season.
The tough stance is a post-Katrina departure for Nagin. Until now, he has refused to pressure residents in trailers because of issues including a lack of affordable housing and problems with them getting timely rebuilding grants or enough money to finish building their homes.
In a letter to President Bush in late February, Nagin wrote that a federal plan to move people from trailers to apartments and hotels over concerns about formaldehyde fumes would lead to a "second great displacement" of New Orleans residents.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been criticized for its response to concerns about high levels of formaldehyde fumes in such homes used by victims of the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes. About 24,600 travel trailers and mobile homes remained occupied in Louisiana and Mississippi, and the agency has stepped up efforts to move residents.
In New Orleans, the city is working with the state and FEMA on housing options. One proposal being floated would redirect federal aid now paying for hotels or apartments for displaced residents toward fixing up damaged homes. It's not very likely that the proposal could come to fruition by August, when hurricane season ramps up in earnest, raising fears that the trailers could not withstand a hurricane.
Some City Council members have raised concerns about jostling residents from trailers to even more temporary quarters — apartments and hotels, if they have no other place to go.
Andrew Thomas, a FEMA spokesman, said Wednesday that the agency will work with parishes and homeowners to see where families are in their "long-term housing plan" and transitioning from trailers.
"We want people back into permanent housing, because it's safer with hurricane season almost here," he said. But "we're not just going to take the trailer away because of a date on the calendar, if they're making progress in getting back into their home."
Meanwhile Wednesday, Bush's hurricane recovery chief said the large number of errors in grants given to homeowners "revictimizes the victims" by making them repay aid they received. The Road Home program, funded mainly by federal dollars, gives grants to homeowners with severe damage from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Retired Maj. Gen. Douglas O'Dell told The Associated Press he is concerned about the timeliness and accuracy of the grants awarded through the program, run by private contractor ICF International Inc.
State officials estimate 130,000 homeowners will receive grants. As many as 5,000 are expected to have received too much money, and ICF has moved to hire a subcontractor to collect overpayments.
The company didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday about the number of errors in grants.