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New Orleans moves to get rid of last FEMA trailers

The era of the FEMA trailer — a symbol of the prolonged rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina — might be drawing to a close in New Orleans.

Citing the remaining 221 trailers as blight, New Orleans officials have told the last remaining residents to be out by the start of 2011 or face steep fines.

New Orleans once had more than 23,000 FEMA trailers, and for many people still living in them, they are akin to permanent homes. These residents say they will find it hard to make the city's deadline.

Edwin Weber Jr., 62, lives with his brother in a trailer crammed with stuff. He was seething at a "notice of violation" letter taped to his door shortly before Christmas.

The letter said he would be fined — up to $500 a day — unless he took "immediate action" to move out. He said the notice was "worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge himself."

Engulfed by vines, Weber's trailer looks like a permanent fixture in the Gentilly Woods neighborhood in front of a home his family has owned since the 1950s. The house, Weber acknowledged, is still in bad shape.

"I haven't got the gas on yet. But I got water and electricity, so it is livable," he said, looking at the battered home. He reckoned he could move into the house, if they were forced to.

The house was flooded by 6 feet of water, but after Katrina, he opted not to take federal housing aid, administered through the state's Road Home program, because he didn't trust the bureaucracy handling the money. Insurance claims have paid for some repairs to the house, he said.

He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency offered to house them outside the city, but they refused.

"I don't know what the big deal about trailers is," he said. "It's not like a hundred trailers is going to make the city look any worse than it is. It's not like the city has been fixed and repaired and these are the remaining eyesores."

Ann Duplessis, the city's deputy chief administrative officer, said city officials will be compassionate in considering each resident's case but hope to have most of the trailers removed within three months. "There may be some lingering, for that little old lady who has no place and no money," she said.

Still, she said the city will take a tough stance. "These trailers were meant to be temporary, not a permanent fixture."

She said many remaining trailer residents simply have not done enough to get out and refused to consider alternative housing. "People have to assume some responsibility for their decision," she said.

FEMA installed about 200,000 temporary housing units — travel trailers, park models and mobile homes — on the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the region in 2005. Louisiana got about 91,860 units and Mississippi about 44,000. There are 106 FEMA trailers left in Mississippi. Across Louisiana, about 520 remain.

According to FEMA, New Orleans got 23,314 trailers.

The few remaining are on the hit list of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who's vowed to rid New Orleans of blight by eliminating 10,000 broken-down properties over the next three years.

"This administration wants to turn a page on Katrina," said Gary Clark, a Dillard University political science professor. "The FEMA trailer has become an icon of Katrina."

But some advocates fear Landrieu's zeal to eliminate blight will hurt poor people struggling to find their way in New Orleans more than five years after Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city in August 2005.

"The blight eradication program, if not done correctly, can become a poor-person eradication program," said Lance Hill, the executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research, a race relations center based at Tulane University.

He said many poor people were not given the help they needed to rebuild. "We never had a resettlement agency in this city for five years."

The city is warning trailer residents that they are in violation of city zoning ordinances and that waivers granted after Katrina will not be renewed. A letter that Weber received said the city understands "the challenges residents have endured post-Katrina" but that the trailers are blight.

The trailers do stand out. Beaten up by weather and use, the white trailers often are streaked in grime and intrude on sidewalks.

"I am very, very serious about the need to get these trailers out of the city of New Orleans," said Jon Johnson, a city councilman for eastern New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward. "My mother-in-law has a trailer right next to her house blocking the sidewalk. That needs to go."

He said deadlines to remove trailers have been extended in the past, but the city should not back down this time.

On the other hand, he also doesn't think the city should hurl trailer-dwellers onto the street. "We have to make sure that when we impose these deadlines on residents they have somewhere to go," he said. "We have to realize that there are people in these predicaments who have no where else to go."

On a street not far from Weber, Paul Delatte, a 50-year-old carpenter living in a FEMA trailer, was much further along in rebuilding his home than were the Webers. He said the home should be done by the end of January.

Delays in getting rebuilding aid slowed the work, Delatte said. He didn't have flood insurance on his house.

"I thought the rebuilding would be done within a year," he said over the sound of a nail gun and electric saw coming from inside his home. "You can't build anything without money."

He was grateful for the trailer, but he was looking forward to moving on. "They want me to be out of it. I want to be out of it. The neighborhood would love to see it gone," he said. "There's nothing I can do about it until I'm finished."

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