Monday, December 24, 2007

Occupancy of FEMA trailers dwindles

Over the past year, tens of thousands of people living in FEMA trailers across Louisiana have moved out of the tiny, metal dwellings, including more than half of trailer residents in New Orleans and the vast majority of Jefferson Parish occupants.

The number of occupied travel trailers statewide dropped by more than two-thirds, from 86,838 last December to 29,654 on Dec. 19, according to figures provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. People are moving out of group trailer parks and trailers on private property, while the number of trailers on commercial trailer sites rented by FEMA and on industrial property has declined significantly.

The decline of trailer occupancy in group sites maintained by FEMA isn't a surprise, as the agency announced plans last month to completely dismantle those parks by May 31, clearing them out in time for the next hurricane season. Several local governments in the New Orleans area also have pushed for the move, saying they want the parks shuttered as soon as possible.

In Louisiana, group site trailers dropped from 8,089 last December to 2,059 last week. Just 603 trailers in New Orleans group sites were still occupied in the third week of December, while agency contractors hauled trailers out of the parks across the city.

Most people who have been living in these group parks have found other places to live, said Ronnie Simpson, a FEMA spokesman, who added that the agency has tried to help people with their rental searches.

Housing advocates have questioned this assertion, saying they fear many people leaving the parks are moving in with relatives or friends because they are unable to find stable homes of their own.

There also has been a marked drop in the number of people living in FEMA trailers on private property, typically on the lawn of a flood-ravaged house. The number of occupied trailers on private property dropped from 69,219 last December to 23,743 last week, according to numbers provided by the agency.

This drop can be seen as a sign of progress in the metropolitan area, a signal that people are moving back into their rehabilitated homes, Simpson said.

"It is mostly folks who got their Road Home money, settled with the insurance company and finished their rebuilding," he said.

Although Michelle Enriques is still in a trailer on Focis Street in Metairie, near the 17th Street Canal, she said she hopes to be back into her renovated house by the end of the year, a good thing because code enforcement officials from Jefferson Parish government told her they want the FEMA trailer on her property ready to be hauled away by that time.

Enriques, who has been in the trailer with her 4-year-old daughter for almost two years, said difficulties getting people to finish the work have delayed her move-in date. But this holiday season, she said she hopes to celebrate inside a house, not a trailer.

"I plan on having Christmas lunch in the house, even if we have to sit on the floor instead of around a table," Enriques said.

A 57-year-old man living alone in a trailer near the corner of Pontchartrain Boulevard and Harrison Avenue in Lakeview said many of his neighbors have moved from trailers into their finished homes, including one family just two doors away who had the trailer hauled off Friday morning. But the man, who asked not to be identified, said he will remain in his trailer for some time because he just received his Road Home grant last week.

Larry Havard, just a few blocks away living in a trailer on 12th Street, said he doesn't see much evidence of progress on his block, where just a few houses or trailers are occupied.

"With half the houses in here, people are not even attempting to do anything," he said.

Havard said he hopes to finish the majority of work on his one-story brick house in the next few months, doing a lot of the work himself, while also waiting for his electrician to show up to finish the wiring. Once enough work is complete, Havard and his rat terrier, Maggie, will finally be able to get out of the trailer, which he said rattles every time a car passes.