Three months after Hurricane Ida, residents are still waiting for FEMA housing
By Sophie Kasakove and Katy Reckdahl
In Tammy Manuel’s neighborhood, hulking piles of debris fester at the edges of lawns cleared to make way for thousands of mobile homes intended for families who saw their homes destroyed by Hurricane Ida in late August.
But three months after the storm tore the roof off her pale-yellow house down the bayou from Houma in southeast Louisiana, sending the ceilings crashing in and soaking her belongings, the yards of Manuel and many of her neighbors are still bare.
Like thousands of others in the rural communities hardest hit by the storm, Manuel said she requested assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency right away. But FEMA said the first trailers — boxy structures also known as manufactured housing units — would not arrive until mid-November.
Instead, the agency offered Manuel a voucher to reimburse her for a hotel or her rent elsewhere. But many of the area’s already limited available houses and hotels were destroyed or full of recovery workers. That left Manuel and her two siblings, whose mobile homes were also left uninhabitable, seeking shelter at the closest hotel they could find, a two-hour drive west in Abbeville.
Manuel is still there, making the commute back home multiple times a week to salvage what she can. She and many of her neighbors who were devastated at losing everything are now frustrated at the lack of safe housing options near their homes and jobs.
As climate change contributes to more punishing natural disasters, federal agencies have repeatedly failed to provide temporary housing swiftly in their wake, exposing wide gaps in disaster policy. In fact, since Hurricane Ida, a makeshift effort by the state of Louisiana has been more successful in providing short-term shelter to storm victims than FEMA has been.
“This process of bringing in units is complicated, it’s complex, it takes time,” said Keith Turi, assistant administrator of recovery at FEMA. The agency has secured enough units to house everyone who needs one after Hurricane Ida, he said, but the challenge is how and where to put them.
“They’re each like miniature construction projects,” Turi said, noting that topography, debris and utility hookups can present obstacles at each site. It’s expensive, too: Each unit can cost about $200,000, according to disaster housing experts.
It wasn’t until last month that every resident was placed in temporary housing after Hurricane Laura hit southwest Louisiana in August 2020, although many residents were put in units before then. After Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area in August 2017, it wasn’t until the following June that every resident was placed in a unit.
At issue is not just competence but difficult policy choices still being debated. Is supplying housing for disaster victims the appropriate role for government? If so, which level of government? And how long after a disaster do victims need housing assistance?
Given the logistical challenges of setting up direct housing, FEMA views trailers as a last resort, Turi said.
In the aftermath of several major hurricanes in 2017 and 2018, FEMA provided rental assistance to 745,660 households, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. It provided direct housing — trailers, mostly — to just 5,368.
But in the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Ida that cut a wide swath in the available housing, housing experts say these assistance funds are a weak substitute for direct housing, especially in rural areas with few hotels.
FEMA’s shift away from direct housing began after Hurricane Katrina, when trailers used to house the displaced were found to have high levels of formaldehyde. Since then, when direct housing has been necessary, the agency has tended toward larger, sturdier manufactured housing units and abided by strict rules and regulations, and an often lengthy process for determining eligibility.
With every passing week that residents wait for temporary housing, the prospect of rebuilding falls further out of reach.
Over a year after Hurricane Laura, Lake Charles, Louisiana, still looks like a ghost town, said Brandi Weldon, a lifelong resident.
In the 10 months before Weldon’s FEMA trailer arrived after Hurricane Laura tore the roof off her home, she and her sons bounced among the couches of family and friends and hotel beds. Moving around was not just difficult but dangerous for Weldon, who is diabetic. She struggled to set up her home dialysis equipment every night and often had to rely on fast food, which led her blood pressure to spike.
“A lot of people were in a predicament to where they had no choice but to move away,” Weldon said.
By the time many disaster survivors make it into FEMA housing, they are confronted with a new problem: where to go next.
Weldon, who moved into her FEMA trailer in June, has less than three months until the FEMA program expires, 18 months after a federal disaster was declared for Hurricane Laura.
In some cases, FEMA trailers can be purchased by recipients for longer-term use. But often, the trailers aren’t compliant with flood plain or wildfire hazard restrictions, leaving FEMA to auction them off for cheap after the disaster period.
With much of the housing stock of Lake Charles still awaiting repairs, and the few available apartments going for hundreds of dollars a month more than they were before the storm, Weldon is out of options. The long-term struggles after Hurricane Laura are a foreboding message to residents and advocates reeling from Hurricane Ida.
“We’re going to end up in the same situation we’re in now but worse, because they won’t have the trailers to live in,” said Genie Trahan-Ardoin, who has been providing assistance door to door with the Helio Foundation, a local nonprofit.
“Everybody you talk to, you ask them, ‘What are you going to do?’” she said. “They say, ‘I don’t know.’”