Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Contractor faces new fraud claims

A Slidell contractor is behind bars for the second time in six months on allegations he defrauded and stole from Hurricane Katrina victims, Slidell police said Tuesday.

James J. Moore, 47, 175 Meadowmoss Drive, was arrested Monday while he was working on another house. He was booked on two warrants alleging theft over $500, police spokesman Capt. Kevin Foltz said.

The latest arrest came after an Arrowhead Drive resident whose home was damaged by Katrina told police Moore took two payments totaling $15,000 in October to remove the home and its foundation from the property, Foltz said. The homeowner was unable to contact Moore after he removed the home but left the foundation, Foltz said.

Police arrested Moore, who was out on bond after being booked on three counts of theft over $500 in December, after one of the homeowners noticed him working on another home in Slidell, Foltz said.

Moore first came to the attention of authorities in November, after a homeowner in the Palms Springs neighborhood told police Moore had taken about $1,000 in roofing materials the homeowner had purchased, Foltz said. The homeowner had hired Moore to fix the roof of the house, Foltz said.

A few weeks after the first complaint, Moore contacted the owner of Water Tight Roofing and asked that the company purchase $1,800 worth of materials for the Palm Springs job, Foltz said. Moore reimbursed the company with a check but put a "stop payment" on it after the materials were delivered, he said.

In December, the Palm Springs homeowner told police that although Moore had been paid $15,000 for the repairs, he had only completed about $6,000 of the work, Foltz said.

Moore was booked Dec. 18 on three counts of theft over $500 and released on a $2,500 bond, Foltz said.

Slidell police also are investigating another complaint from a fourth person who alleged Moore defrauded him on $250,000 worth of work, Foltz said.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Subsidy offered to get residents out of trailers

Scores of St. Tammany Parish residents still living in FEMA trailers were told by federal officials this week that a pilot rent subsidy program is available for them to move into homes and apartments.

But those residents, at meetings in Slidell and Folsom, were also told that they may have to move out of the area due to a local shortage of rental housing units.

"You have to make some real hard decisions," said Carl Jurison, a senior adviser for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Those hard decisions have to be made as an Aug. 29 parish deadline approaches that will require the more than 1,200 parish residents in FEMA trailers to find another place to live.

Parish President Kevin Davis has announced that on Aug. 30, the parish will resume enforcing zoning and other codes that prohibit travel trailers as homes on private property. Those still in trailers on private property will face citations for code violations and fines up to $500 per day, parish officials have warned.

At Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Slidell Wednesday night, about 150 visibly distraught and nervous residents listened to FEMA and HUD officials explain the pilot program.

"Where is Kevin Davis?" asked Winnie Ordone of Lacombe. "How come he's not here to see what's going on? . . . Come Aug. 29, what am I supposed to do? Start paying fines or move to New York? I don't know."

Ordone, who works for the School Board's Head Start program in Lacombe, said she and her 12-year-old son have lived in a FEMA trailer since Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home in Lacombe in 2005. Ordone said the trailer is on "higher ground" property she bought after the storm. She said she has been trying to save money to buy a mobile home that meets parish codes to put on her property.

"It's not like I've been sitting around for three years doing nothing," Ordone said.

A neighbor on Pontchartrain Drive in Lacombe, Larrisa Young, said the prospect of having to move out of the area is disturbing. "My kids ask me every day, 'Where are we going to go?' " said Young, a custodian at Fontainebleau High School

Young said her rental home was destroyed by Katrina. She now lives in a small FEMA trailer with her three children and a 7-month-old grandchild. The trailer is on family property where she hopes to eventually build or put a home, she said.

"We want to stay here," Young said. "I don't want to uproot my kids and family."

Ordone, Young and others at the meetings in Slidell and Folsom filled out paperwork and huddled individually with FEMA and HUD counselors to sign up for the Disaster Housing Assistance Program.

Under the HUD program, FEMA counselors work with residents to find a rental home or apartment and sign a lease with the landlord. HUD then pays the rent for the Katrina victim.

Jurison said a person only has to be qualified for FEMA assistance to qualify for the subsidy program. The program pays up to the fair market value of the rental property through February 2009, Jurison said. Subsidies for people over 62 or who are disabled can continue under the program, he said.

In March 2009, those who are younger than 62, not disabled and meet low-income requirements will be shifted into regular HUD housing or rent voucher programs, Jurison said. The subsidies will end in March for those who don't qualify for HUD programs.

"So, think beyond March 2009," FEMA adviser Gail Tate told the residents. "Get something you can afford" for when the subsidies are no longer available.

The parish deadline to move out of FEMA trailers does not apply to trailers in mobile home parks. But Tate said by March 2009, FEMA will require all trailer residents to move

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Woman accused of Road Home fraud

In the first federal case alleging Road Home fraud, a New Orleans woman was charged Friday with stealing $132,000 in homeowner aid for an Uptown home she did not rightfully own.

A federal grand jury in New Orleans handed up two felony counts against Barbara Simmons Dowl, 46: a count of theft of government funds and a count of wire fraud. She got an $85,930 check directly from the Road Home, financed by U.S. Housing and Urban Development money, and also caused the program to wire the other $46,000 of her grant to the Small Business Administration to pay off an SBA loan in her name, also for the property in question.

If convicted, Dowl faces as many as 30 years in prison, three years of supervised release, a $250,000 fine and possible forfeiture of her property. Contacted Friday, Dowl declined to comment.

In an elaborate scheme first exposed by The Times-Picayune in December, Dowl collected a Road Home grant for property previously owned by Nathaniel Dowl Jr., a man she identifies in court testimony as her ex-husband. Court records show Nathaniel Dowl lost the property in 2004 because of unpaid taxes.

After Hurricane Katrina, Nathaniel Dowl filed a "quit-claim deed" in New Orleans property records, falsely stating the city had sold the property at 8633 Zimpel St. to Barbara Dowl, even though in truth the city had sold it to local landlord and developer Brad Robinson and his wife, Michelle, two years earlier.

The deed is signed only by the supposed purchaser, Barbara Dowl, and not by a city official or the Robinsons. A judge declared it and other documents filed by the Dowls on the Zimpel Street property null and void.

"This is your money. This is my money. This is everybody's money," Brad Robinson said Friday. "There are people out there who deserve Road Home money who didn't get any while it went to people like the Dowls."

Nathaniel Dowl, a convicted thief and forger, faces separate state charges of filing false public records on multiple properties, including the quit-claim deed on 8633 Zimpel St., the one that allegedly helped Barbara Dowl collect the Road Home money.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said the federal case remains under investigation. Federal officials are expected to closely follow the state case against Nathaniel Dowl, which is scheduled to resume in Orleans Parish Criminal Court next month, and federal authorities can file a superseding indictment in federal court if they want to add charges or additional defendants.

There is evidence that Nathaniel Dowl was involved in similar schemes with Barbara Dowl. Barbara Dowl testified in an August 2006 eviction case about her role in filing a nearly identical quit-claim deed on another property, owned by Tracey and Oscar Poydras. Under oath in First City Court, she indicated little understanding of the quit-claim deed she signed, said Nathaniel Dowl prepared all the documents and added that she simply did what her ex-husband told her.

Federal officials heralded Friday's indictment as a sign they are serious about preventing fraud in the Road Home program and said there will be more indictments to come.

"This prosecution, although the first in our district, will not by any means be the last," Letten said.

According to Tom Luke, HUD's special agent in charge of investigations in Mississippi and Louisiana, this is the first federal fraud charges for Road Home theft in Louisiana, while a parallel homeowner aid program in Mississippi has yielded 53 indictments, 41 convictions and about $3.6 million in frozen or recovered grant funds.

This is despite the fact that Louisiana's program has paid out five times as many grants as Mississippi's.

Officials ascribe the relatively low levels of Road Home fraud to the maze-like verification measures in Louisiana's program, the policies that also have been blamed for slowing grant payouts.

Although Friday's indictment alleges Barbara Dowl also collected an SBA loan on the property she did not own, she has not been charged with fraud for that because she was living in Atlanta when she applied for the loan and a fraud investigation continues in that district, said Matthew Issman, SBA's special agent in charge in New Orleans.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

FEMA gives away Katrina donations

In March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave away $85 million of donated items and household supplies originally intended for Katrina victims.

The Louisiana agency that deals with government surplus was offered the goods but turned them down.

"Somewhere in this big bureaucracy, links weren't made," said Adam Sharp, spokesman for Sen. Mary Landrieu, whose office is scrambling to track FEMA's discards and possibly reroute them to UNITY of Greater New Orleans, which desperately needs goods for formerly homeless people it has placed in subsidized apartments. "If the supplies just have been moved from one warehouse to another, we hope to get some of them moved back to FEMA so that they can be re-offered to Louisiana and given to UNITY," he said.

For about two years, the goods were stored in one of FEMA's main emergency-supply warehouses, a 280,000-square-foot building in Fort Worth, Texas, according to FEMA's acting press secretary, James McIntyre. When the owner decided to demolish that warehouse earlier this year, FEMA staff went through and tagged unnecessary items.

The agency kept only items routinely used for disaster response: pallets of water, diapers, and cots. It jettisoned boxes of miscellaneous donated goods that came in droves after Katrina but never found owners: things such as shoes, clothing and coffee makers. Everything deemed unnecessary was transferred by FEMA to the U.S. General Services Administration, which distributes all surplus federal property.

GSA routinely offers property like this to government agencies, nonprofits, and GSA's state branches, including the Louisiana Federal Property Assistance Agency in Baton Rouge, which declined GSA's offer of FEMA's surplus from Fort Worth.

Despite UNITY's high-profile efforts to house 300 people over the past six months, the group was not officially registered with the Louisiana surplus agency. So the agency didn't know about UNITY's needs.

"LRA Director Paul Rainwater is taking the lead on determining where this serious breakdown in communication occurred," said Commissioner of Administration spokesman Michael DiResto. Rainwater has contacted FEMA, DiResto said, and "is working to pursue options for the state to make use of these important supplies."

Landrieu's office will help to expedite UNITY's registration, so the group will be cleared to receive any of FEMA's discards, if the senator's office is able to locate them, Sharp said. The state surplus agency also may have similar items in stock and can donate them when UNITY is properly registered.

UNITY is especially interested in what FEMA called "starter kits," which are not standard issue for domestic disasters but were purchased for the 143,000 Gulf Coast families who moved into FEMA trailers, some directly from emergency shelters. Every trailer household got a kit, which included items such as a broom, mop, pots and pans, plates, utensils, towels, bedding, blankets and household cleaners.

The 121 truckloads hauled from the Fort Worth warehouse included perhaps a few thousand kits, left over after all trailer families had been housed, McIntyre said.

For UNITY, these kits would be a godsend, said Martha Kegel, head of UNITY. "It's exactly the stuff we've had to beg from churches, businesses, sororities, schoolchildren and everyday citizens," she said.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

FEMA trailer occupant killed after police standoff

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Eric Minshew struggled with mental illness for many years and seemed to get much worse after Hurricane Katrina, according to his brother. Finally, when FEMA workers showed up to inspect his government-issue trailer, he snapped. Police shot and killed Minshew early Wednesday after a nearly 10-hour standoff in one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the August 2005 hurricane.

Authorities said the 49-year-old Minshew had threatened the FEMA inspectors with a gun, then fired several shots at police after they arrived. He was killed after pointing a gun at officers, police said.

Minshew had been living alone in the FEMA trailer outside his parents' house, which had to be gutted because of damage from Katrina. He felt let down by the government, had grown frustrated over the damage and the wait for rebuilding aid, and feared his hopes of inheriting the house were slipping away, said his brother, Homer M. Minshew III.

"I think that the storm took away his hope, and all of the issues involved in it sort of fed the fire," he said. He added: "A lot of people who didn't struggle before were struggling after the storm."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency inspection was a first step toward taking the trailer away. FEMA has been pushing to get residents out of trailers, in part because of dangerous levels of formaldehyde fumes in many of them.

New Orleans' mental health system was thrown into disarray by Katrina and suffers a severe shortage of psychiatric beds. Earlier this year, a police officer was killed by a homeless man who was said to have been diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic.

But Homer Minshew suggested the turmoil in the mental health system was not really a factor in his brother's death. He said he and his family had begged his brother to get help, but he wouldn't listen.

James Arey, commander of the police crisis intervention team, said the case "doesn't have anything to do with Katrina."

"I'd love to rant and rave about lack of treatment (facilities) and all of that, but that doesn't relate to this case," he said.

Homer Minshew said his brother had moved in with his parents about eight years ago, with no money and no job. He had worked as a security guard, which is how he came to own a gun, Minshew said.

The house had been put up for sale by the sheriff a year ago, but Homer Minshew had held off foreclosure and was negotiating with the bank. He said the family had been awaiting aid from the state-run hurricane relief program so they could either pay off the mortgage or fix up the house and sell it.

Minshew was shot and killed after retreating to the house and barricading himself there.

He suffered from delusions and often couldn't be reasoned with, according to his brother.

"He had a lot of serious mental issues and would all of a sudden go off on a rant about the government, the local, state government, the feds and everything else," his brother said. "He has some issues. He just snapped. Thank God nobody else got hurt."

Rosemarie Brocato, who lives about a block away from the house, said Minshew seemed lonely, often stopping her to talk for a half-hour at a time when she passed his house. "He just needed someone to talk to, I guess. I felt sorry for him," she said.

The shooting took place in Lakeview, one of the city's more prosperous neighborhoods. It was swamped with as much as 11 feet of water after a levee broke.

The whole block on which the trailer sat appeared abandoned, with an empty, overgrown lot next door and houses unrepaired since the storm, their windows broken. Minshew's trailer was the only one visible for blocks along the street, dotted with derelict properties, for-sale signs and beautifully rebuilt homes.

Taped to the front window of Minshew's house were a newspaper article headlined "Do you have a legal right to own a gun?" and a no-trespassing sign. A car in the driveway had two flat tires.

FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said that he couldn't release specifics about Minshew's case but that the FEMA workers "were operating within prescribed procedures to perform a move-out inspection when the applicant exited his housing unit wearing a firearm."

The officers involved have been reassigned to administrative duties during the investigation, which is standard procedure, police said.

Minshew said he didn't fault FEMA or the police, who he said gave his brother "every opportunity" to end the standoff peacefully. But he said he believes his brother "just kind of fell through the cracks."

Mayor Ray Nagin has set Aug. 29, the storm's three-year anniversary, as his goal for getting rid of the last of the trailers in the city. As of Tuesday, nearly 4,930 remained.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Holdouts Test Aid’s Limitations as FEMA Shuts a Trailer Park

BAKER, La. — Theresa August spent the official closing day of the Renaissance Village trailer park singing, muttering to herself and dancing on a picnic table. Finally, wearing an infant’s flowered onesie on her head like a kerchief, she began to pack up.

Ms. August, 39, giggled on the steps of her overflowing trailer last Saturday as Sister Judith Brun asked when she might be able to leave the trailer park that, at its peak, housed almost 600 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Sunday? No response. Monday? A smile.

But by Monday, Sister Judith, a nun who has been an almost constant presence during the park’s waning weeks, had learned that Ms. August’s destination was not, as the situation seemed to demand, a placement supervised by a professional caregiver, but an apartment in New Orleans found by a friend. Because it was clear to Sister Judith that Ms. August was not capable of riding a bus and moving into the apartment on her own, as FEMA had planned, Sister Judith decided to postpone the trip a day until she herself could take Ms. August, who has been known to wander off.

The closing of Renaissance Village, near Baton Rouge, and the other remaining FEMA parks represents the final chapter in one of the largest and most tumultuous efforts by the federal government to provide emergency housing to a displaced population. Over the course of two years and nine months, the Federal Emergency Management Agency put up 9,000 families in trailer parks scattered around the Gulf area, where residents endured cramped, inadequate and often poisonous conditions.

Many Louisiana residents shared a similar reaction to the announcement that the parks would close at the end of May: It’s about time. After all, more than 800 families had passed through Renaissance Village’s gates and managed to move on with their lives in their own homes. Why not the rest?

As residents like Ms. August make clear, that question has no simple answer. Those remaining are the hardest to help, posing the toughest test of the oft-repeated promise that the recovery from Hurricane Katrina would at least offer the opportunity to rectify the social ills the storm exposed.

Reason holds little sway over the residents of this microcosm. Some of those most in need have proved to be, out of pride or paranoia, the least likely to accept help. Those who under normal circumstances have little leverage have become the most demanding holdouts. Those ill-equipped for real-world survival cling with surprising tenacity to the place they have come to think of as home.

As the last day came and went, many of those left in the park (38 trailers full, by FEMA’s count) were exemplars of New Orleans’s most persistent problems before the storm: old, unhealthy, delusional, mentally challenged, addicted, illiterate, senile. They have bad credit, criminal records, exasperated relatives. They are often unreliable narrators of their own stories.

Though the government has failed these residents in many ways and for many years, in the final weeks ample assistance has been available — from gas money and food vouchers to utility deposits and hotel rooms, even for those technically ineligible for FEMA assistance. Catholic Charities has helped with furniture and deposits; the Capitol Area Alliance for the Homeless has offered rent subsidies for those who are ineligible. Sister Judith has delivered groceries and arranged rides, sympathized and scolded, strategically dispensed small wads of cash to plug the gaps in the system.

Yet for all that, to follow the last residents as they are dragged toward self-sufficiency is to witness a clanging, screeching streetcar of human and bureaucratic limitations that seems to lurch backward as often as forward. On Tuesday, Sister Judith and Ms. August arrived in New Orleans in a hired van, only to learn that there was no electricity, no mattress and no one to let them into the apartment.

They returned to Renaissance Village.

“The question I keep coming back to,” Sister Judith said, “is why is there still so much need?”

Facing Life on Their Own

Alton Love, 41, rode his bicycle, back tire sagging, down a hot Baton Rouge street with his 9-year-old daughter on his handlebars, looking for the man to whom he had given his car two months before on a promise it would be fixed. He has not seen the car since.

LaTonya London, 24, was at home with four of her five children but no money, no car and no diapers.

Laura Hilton, 45, was clutching a lease for a four-bedroom home in New Orleans for $1,650 a month. Her income, in the form of government disability payments, is $1,600 a month.

These are scenes from the multiple stages of moving out and moving on. As the deadline loomed, the approximately 450 families still in the parks responded in different ways. Some finally opened the door when the FEMA workers knocked, or boarded a van hired by Sister Judith to hunt for apartments. Others broke down in tears, became entangled in delusional schemes or did nothing, passively waiting for one level of government to hand them off to another. FEMA officials said they would not forcibly remove those who remained.

FEMA, which ultimately is a disaster-response agency, not a social service department, endured years of blistering criticism for its failure to understand that many New Orleans residents needed more than just a roof over their heads after the hurricane. The agency now is quick to admit that other agencies are better equipped to handle persistent social ills. Its job in cases like that of Ms. August, FEMA officials say, is limited to getting her housed.

Still, in its awkward fashion, the agency designed a gradual transition for residents from the parks and government care, offering an intermediate step of a 30-day hotel stay. After residents spend the first month in an apartment, the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, would kick in, paying the full rent until March 1, 2009.

But each phase presents an opportunity for failure as well as success. What happens to those in hotels who still have not found housing at the end of 30 days? What happens to those who, come March, are in apartments too expensive to afford on their own? What about those who, for various reasons, are already ineligible for rental assistance?

At least 30 families or individuals living in Renaissance Village in its final weeks fell into the last category: Mr. Love because he could not account for the $800 FEMA gave him for rental assistance right after the storm; Ms. London because she opted to leave after her boyfriend, whose criminal record includes arrests for burglary and drug possession with intent to distribute, was banned from the park; Ms. Hilton, who can barely read, because FEMA was unable to verify her pre-storm address.

Concerns About Future

Ms. London, who eventually moved to a $900-a-month house subsidized by the Homeless Alliance, acknowledged how easy it would have been to stay in the trailer park and remain dependent.

“Being in that trailer, having all that stuff, it was like we became crippled,” she said. “You had free rent; you didn’t have to worry about light bills.”

Before the storm, she said, “I was being independent. Now I feel like I’m leaning — I’m leaning.”

Ms. Hilton wanted to move her sons, George, 17, and Roy, 10, back to New Orleans because her daughter and grandchildren live there. Through the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless, a rent subsidy could be arranged, but Sister Judith, who has focused her efforts on keeping the ineligibles off the streets, is concerned about what will happen when the subsidies expire.

“O.K., you can’t sign this lease,” she told Ms. Hilton, who stared at the ground, which was littered with beer cans. “You can’t afford this, you’re going to wind up getting evicted, then you’re going to be homeless.”

Ms. Hilton wailed, “I’m already homeless!”

Sister Judith said, “You’re going to move to a place that costs more than you get a month, does that make any sense?”

Ms. Hilton had no good answer. When Sister Judith walked away, Ms. Hilton gave a sigh. “Makes you want to drink,” she said.

Hoping for Kindness

There are some families that have been literally riven in the course of the park’s closing. Right after the storm, Joseph Griffin and his girlfriend, Sherryl Harris, lived in a trailer with Mr. Griffin’s sons, Jamal and Jermaine. The boys worked with the art therapists who came periodically to the park, and Jermaine was selected for a scholarship to Idyllwild Arts summer camp in California.

Now Jermaine, 16, has left home and school, and is staying with another family in Kenner, outside New Orleans, where he has a job at a Dairy Queen. Jamal, 13, is staying with his grandmother in Baton Rouge. Ms. Harris is getting her own place.

Mr. Griffin hopes that his boys will come back. As soon as he finds a home.

Not every case seems as difficult, however. Gloria Martin, 51, was prescribed psychiatric medication after the storm for, she said, “hearing voices.” When the medication was stolen, she began to get arrested — once for standing in the middle of the road at night, another time for getting into a fight at the food stamp office. She lost her FEMA eligibility when she went to prison.

But Sister Judith’s team found her a place at Connections for Life, a yearlong program in Baton Rouge for female ex-offenders. On move-in day, Ms. Martin moved like a person in shock. One week later, she was radiant, cheerfully working at the Connections for Life thrift store, where she helped a one-eyed man find window shades.

“I had never had nothing like this happen to me before,” she said. “A free apartment and a job, free clothes and shoes, and eating good. And sleeping good.”

Monday, June 9, 2008

Family felt like 'lab rats' in FEMA trailer

Medical care runs to 4,000 pages, $10,000

It was when the sight of a bloody child became routine that Lindsay Huckabee broke down and cried. She and her husband, Steve, had spent months dealing with "two, three, four nosebleeds a week," in their FEMA mobile home, she said. When it wasn't a nosebleed, one child or another had burning eyes, coughing, congestion and "colds" that wouldn't go away.

The Huckabee children - Vicki, now 13, Caitlin, 9, Lelah, 6, Steven, 4, and Michael, 2 - were regulars at the emergency room from early 2006 onward. Lelah and Michael had surgeries related to chronic breathing problems. Every week, it seemed, at least one child went to the doctor.

"The receptionist knew me by my first name, and I swear she probably knew my voice, too," Huckabee said.

The Huckabees have become icons for a Sierra Club movement that believes formaldehyde fumes in FEMA trailers have caused widespread poisoning of hurricane victims. The organization tested the formaldehyde levels of 69 FEMA trailers. Based on an industrial standard, most tested high, as did the Huckabees'. The Sierra Club is now campaigning for stringent standards on formaldehyde levels in building products, where it is used in glues, resins, particle board and sometimes insulation.

There is no one standard for an acceptable level of formaldehyde exposure. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has one set of standards. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has another. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, through its Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, has another set of standards far below the others. The Huckabees' mobile home tested just above one of OSHA's standards, just below HUD's standard and well above ATSDR's standard.

Several agencies list formaldehyde as a likely carcinogen.

Lindsay has become an erstwhile spokeswoman for the movement, having testified before Congress twice about her family's health issues while living in FEMA trailers, once for House Oversight Committee and again for the Committee for Science and Technology.

The Huckabees' Pass Christian apartment was flooded to the ceiling by Katrina. They received a travel trailer in October 2005, then a mobile home in December 2005. Lindsay went into early labor. Michael was born four weeks prematurely, and within a few days he was congested. For the first two years of his life, she said, he stayed that way. Before FEMA housing, the Huckabees said most illnesses were treated with Tylenol; they didn't chase their children around with anti-bacterial gel or call the doctor for every sniffle.

"I asked my doctor what I was doing wrong. Why couldn't I get my kids healthy and keep them that way?" Lindsay said.

The CDC wrote in its March 2008 FEMA trailer and mobile home assessment "there is no specific level of formaldehyde that separates "safe" from "dangerous." It found although levels of formaldehyde varied from unit to unit of a particular brand, nearly all brands of FEMA housing tested had units with high levels of formaldehyde. Though it did not declare high levels of formaldehyde unsafe, CDC "supported the need to move quickly," and get people out of FEMA housing before summer, as heat can increase formaldehyde fumes.

FEMA set a target date of June 1 to close its travel trailer parks. This phase is done, said spokesperson Eugene Brezany. Eight mobile home parks are still open, and they will be closed by the end of the year. Most of the 6,400 families still in FEMA trailers are on private land.

The hearings at which Lindsay testified were convened after internal e-mails suggested FEMA and the CDC knew the trailers could be contaminated, yet delayed testing and tried to quash the results. This is the most damning thing to the Huckabees - spending extra weeks and months in a trailer the government knew was unsafe.

They have 4,000 pages of medical records. They've spent at least $10,000 out of pocket for what health insurance won't cover. Steve is a surveillance technician at Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis. They believe if the cause of their health problems was not formaldehyde alone, it certainly made things worse.

"I feel like after it was first known that the formaldehyde was a problem, we were lab rats subjected to the toxin, but no one wanted to record the results," Lindsay said.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Trailers in N.O. must go by July 1

New Orleans officials will begin cracking down on residents still living in travel trailers as of July 1, requiring property owners to request an extension from the city if they need to continue living in temporary quarters.

Starting in July, city zoning ordinances that prohibit people from living in trailers on private property - unless in a designated trailer park - will go back into effect, according to a news release issued Thursday by Mayor Ray Nagin's office. Those ordinances were waived after Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of residents needed to live in the tiny metal boxes because their homes flooded.

Over the weekend, workers with the Federal Emergency Management Agency blanketed the 4,684 FEMA trailers currently occupied in New Orleans with notices about the deadline, said Andrew Thomas, an agency spokesman.

Trailer occupants should first contact FEMA to get the trailer removed. Then they need to file an affidavit with the city, included with the flier posted by FEMA, that certifies they asked the federal agency to remove the trailer. This affidavit also grants the city of New Orleans permission to contact the agency to request trailer removal. Filing the affidavit protects the resident if the trailer has not been taken away by July 1.

While FEMA notified trailer occupants about the return to the old city ordinance, the regulations also will apply to people who bought their own trailers after the storm, said James Ross, a Nagin spokesman.

If residents are not done rebuilding their flooded homes, they can ask the city Department of Safety & Permits for permission to continue living in the trailer. However, residents will have to show that they meet specific criteria to obtain an extension and provide the city with records that show they intend to rebuild a flooded house, according to the application. The request for an extension must be filed by July 1.

These criteria include documentation that there is ongoing litigation between a resident and insurance company or documentation that the resident applied for Road Home grants but has not received the money. Other records that may be required include loan papers or data that show repairs are ongoing and telling the city the anticipated completion date.

"While we understand that we must make exceptions in some cases, the elimination of trailers for housing is a priority as we move toward the full recovery of our community," Recovery Director Ed Blakely is quoted as saying in the city news release.

The 30-day notice to vacate their trailers has left a lot of people wondering what to do, said Davida Finger, an attorney handling housing cases for the Loyola Law Clinic.

"It has left people shellshocked," Finger said, noting that most of the people receiving the notices are those who have struggled the most to rebuild their damaged properties. The 30-day timeframe is simply too short, she said.

Many of the dozens of people who have called the Loyola clinic since the weekend are still wrangling with the Road Home program to receive grants to rebuild and aren't prepared to find new places to live, she said.

Finger said the city needs to give homeowners more specific information about the the extension process, such as when they can expect to hear back from the city and who will be deciding whether to grant the extensions.

City Councilwoman Stacy Head heralded the decision to implement a deadline, saying the city is trying to provide people with information about their options as July 1 approaches.

Many areas of New Orleans, particularly those that were not heavily flooded, are very ready to move past the temporary domiciles, she said.

"Moving more and more FEMA trailers, particularly from these neighborhoods, will give people confidence that we are moving back to a state of normalcy," Head said. "And especially with the beginning of hurricane season, it's good to remind people that FEMA trailers are dangerous places - trailers in general are dangerous places to live - and more permanent housing is a much better long-term solution."

People with no place to go once the trailers are removed can ask for FEMA assistance to obtain new housing, which can include rental assistance, Thomas said.

Zoning officials have received about 200 extension requests so far, Blakely said.

Residents who don't receive approval to remain in the trailer after July 1 can be cited by the safety and permits department, Ross said. This process can include a hearing before an administrative officer and fines, as well as eviction.

The New Orleans process could mirror the one implemented in Jefferson Parish, where officials have filed lawsuits against property owners with trailers on their lots, Head said. In a press release issued Thursday, Jefferson Parish officials indicated that 159 lawsuits have been filed against residents who haven't gotten rid of trailers.

Affidavits and extension requests can be delivered to the Mayor's Office of Public Advocacy at City Hall or mailed to the Department of Safety and Permits, Zoning Administration Division, 1300 Perdido St., Room 7E05, New Orleans LA 70112.

Residents with questions about the requirements can contact the city's information line at 311 or (504) 658-2299.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

FEMA trailers in St. Tammany to be outlawed by Katrina's 3rd anniversary

St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis will hold an 11 a.m. press conference to announce that FEMA trailers will no longer be allowed on private property as of August 29, the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Davis said the executive order signed during the parish's state of emergency will be allowed to expire on that date.

The press conference will be held in the St. Tammany Parish Council Chambers in the parish administration building on Koop Drive in Mandeville.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Trailers still on list of FEMA options

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency may again use travel trailers to house disaster victims, although only as a last resort and for no longer than six months, according to a draft disaster housing report.

James McIntyre, a FEMA spokesman, said the draft is now being reviewed by Secretary Michael Chertoff of the Department of Homeland Security. He expressed hope that members of Congress, who complain that they were promised a report in time for the June 1 start of the hurricane season, will be briefed about the report in the next few days.

Although FEMA Director David Paulison has said that he didn't want to use trailers again after complaints of health problems linked to high formaldehyde levels in some trailers, the agency says it might not have any choice.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Deputy FEMA Administrator Harvey Johnson said that for a disaster approaching the size of Hurricane Katrina, the agency would probably have to use all options, including trailers.

According to the contents of a draft report, first reported by The Associated Press and confirmed by a FEMA official, the agency has determined:

-- Trailers can be used, but only if authorized by the FEMA director and only after the units have been tested for formaldehyde and are within the low acceptable levels established by the agency.

-- FEMA will consider use of alternatives, such as cottages being tested in Mississippi and Louisiana.

-- Unlike after Hurricane Katrina, occupancy will be limited to no more than six months. More than 120,000 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina used trailers, with more than 80,000 using them nearly two years after the disaster. FEMA says about 500 families remain in trailers today.

-- FEMA will rely more on input from states and local governments on what kind of emergency housing to use.

-- Efforts will be made to coordinate with community groups to find alternative rental units in future disasters. FEMA will provide rent subsidies.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., expressed disappointment that Congress, which asked for a disaster housing report more than a year ago, still hasn't received one. She said that Paulison had promised her a copy by Sunday's start of the hurricane season.

"The agency has refused repeated inquiries for the plan's status from the Senate Homeland Security Committee's Disaster Recovery Subcommittee, yet it has found time to share draft elements with the media," Landrieu said. "Once again, it appears FEMA has opted to put spin ahead of accountability.