WASHINGTON – The Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided housing assistance to more than 770,000 families hurt by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but the agency is now catching a bad rap because of nearly 11,000 mobile homes sinking in a cow pasture in Arkansas, FEMA officials say.
“It’s infuriating,” said FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews about reports of the more than 10,770 trailers sitting empty. The land lease fees to let the trailers sit in Arkansas have so far cost taxpayers $600,000. The trailers cost $367 million.
“To insinuate they would be going to waste is flat out wrong,” she said.
Andrews said a number of issues are holding up the transfer of the mobile homes to people who still need a permanent place to live. Among them, federal, state and local regulations limit the placement of temporary housing in a flood plain. On top of that, only eight of 64 parishes in Louisiana — not all of which are in the flood plain — have accepted the mobile homes into their communities.
“We were under the assumption that in Louisiana, they would need substantial housing support and would be willing to receive manufactured housing,” Andrews said. “It’s not a big mistake. We’ve been trying to give these away for six months.”
But critics contend FEMA screwed up by ordering thousands of mobile homes before assessing how and where they could be used. They say the images of vacant mobile home communities is a stark symbol of an inept government bureaucracy.
“It’s reprehensible that we have 10,770 brand-new, fully-furnished mobile homes sitting in a pasture in Hope, Arkansas,” said Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark. Ross told FOXNews.com that contrary to earlier reports, the mobile homes are in good shape and ready to be occupied.
Bill Croft, coordinator for Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco's hurricane housing task force, said FEMA knew about the flood plain limitations before the storms hit. He called it a mistake for the agency to go ahead and buy the mobile homes anyway.
“It’s frustrating. It’s not the states’ fault FEMA bought 11,000 trailers and put them in Arkansas. They knew,” Croft said. “Most of Louisiana is in the flood plain.”
Croft told FOXNews.com that about 50,000 individuals are still seeking long-term housing assistance in his state. Currently, about 2,000 mobile homes are occupied and 2,900 are ready for occupancy.
He added that 38,000 travel trailers — typically parked in the driveways of damaged homes to be used by families while their property is restored — are in use.
Last week, FEMA cut off payments to more than 12,000 Katrina refugees staying in hotels nationwide. According to FEMA, 10,500 of those people received further housing assistance to transition into permanent housing.
FEMA officials last week took a battering in two congressional reports and by members of Congress who cited rampant fraud, waste and abuse in the hurricane response effort. They responded that they made the right decision in ordering the mobile homes and will get them out to hurricane victims where possible. The rest will be stored for future disasters.
“You know, we’ll use them where we can. They work in most cases, they just simply didn’t work in … the southern New Orleans area,” FEMA Acting Director David Paulison told FOX News last week. “They can work in other parts of the state and we will use them around the country in other disasters. The money is not being wasted.”
Paulison said the agency had already been having second thoughts about the mobile homes before the congressional attention.
“We’re just not convinced that right now those mobile homes are of a great use down there,” he said.
Croft said some suggestions had been made to relax flood plain regulations to accommodate the trailers, but FEMA officials dismissed that idea during hearings on Capitol Hill last week. The housing coordinator acknowledged that local parishes have resisted the FEMA mobile homes, in part, because they cannot afford the additional costs of taking on so many new families.
Such costs would include electricity, health care, water, sewage and education. Croft said the state asked FEMA to provide “impact fees” to compensate these municipalities several months ago, but they haven’t gotten an answer yet.
“Certainly, the communities are saying we can’t take them, we can’t handle it,” said Croft. “But we haven’t been able to go to the community and say, ‘If we provide you impact fees … can you do it?'”
Andrews said impact fees are “on the table,” but so far discussions have been very “one-sided.”
No matter the explanations behind the delays, critics say the mobile home issue is indicative of massive bureaucratic problems stemming from FEMA's being placed inside the Department of Homeland Security. Some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have suggested moving FEMA out of DHS and giving it Cabinet-level status.
Elaine Kamark, a former Clinton administration official and now lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said FEMA was doing just fine in responding to natural disasters up until it was moved into DHS.
“That agency is drowning and drowning,” she said, referring to FEMA. “There is no excuse under the sun other than a bureaucracy that had gotten so convoluted that they can’t do the simple right thing, which is to get these trailers out to the people that need them."
Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said the unused trailers are just another example of the administration's tendency to act first and ask questions later. He said FEMA should have known ahead of time which parishes would permit mobile homes to be situated there.
“I think if you are looking at comprehensive planning in an area prone to hurricanes, that might be a question you might want to ask in advance,” he said. “It’s just another way the government has failed the taxpayers.”
Kamarck said prior to the creation of the 180,000-employee Homeland Security Department, FEMA's director always had direct access to the president, a key that is now missing as a result of it being sucked into a large department. She said the Bush administration had been forewarned about folding FEMA into DHS.
“It had a very clear mission,” she said. “There was a relationship built up that allowed for the cutting out of lots of red tape.
"You saw it coming," she said of the recent mistakes.
On Sunday, Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff conceded that changes to the agency structure had created difficulties in getting FEMA up to speed.
"You know, we are still an immature department. A lot of progress has been made, and there are many, many fine things that we have in place now that were not in place two years ago, but I'm the first person to be aware that we're always racing the clock. And in terms of some of the capabilities and some of the planning, which should have been done earlier — and some of it isn't a matter of money; it's a matter of sitting down and thinking through what plans you need — you know, we've got to get that stuff done" before the new hurricane season begins on June 1, Chertoff told ABC's "This Week."
The secretary also said that he has made several changes to operations at FEMA, including upgraded communications and relay stations to work during storms, real-time inventory of assets that can be deployed and trained teams that can go into the hurricane area to assess the damages.
He said he is also looking for a team of trained professionals in emergency management who can be placed at the top of FEMA hopefully before the new hurricane season starts.