The basic challenge was finding housing for the estimated 300,000 families whose homes Katrina wrecked. As I write, the hard-hit neighborhoods of New Orleans remain virtually unchanged since the day after the floodwaters retreated. The 300,000 homes destroyed or made uninhabitable represent at least $67 billion in losses. This devastation surpasses the combined damage from the four largest hurricanes in 2004 (Charley, Francis, Ivan, and Jeanne), which ruined 85,000 homes. There are still blocks and blocks of irreversibly damaged houses, their interior walls covered with black mold, and thousands of metric tons of debris and garbage still filling the streets. So much of the mess remains frozen in time that a thriving new business has emerged: entrepreneurs, like the Gray Line bus tour that charges $35 a head, have been taking gawking tourists to see what Mother Nature has wrought and human beings cannot seem to fix.
At the very time when the federal government has begun to cut off funds supporting displaced families being sheltered in hotels throughout?and beyond?Louisiana, thousands of FEMA-purchased mobile homes languish in fields and empty lots in Florida and Arkansas, undelivered and unused. This fact came out in a CNN interview with a FEMA official in Arkansas. The backdrop was the surreal image of a sea of 11,000 empty, brand new white mobile homes.
The reporter asked, "Why aren't these trailers being used to house evacuees in Louisiana? Why are they still here?" The FEMA official replied, "It's hard to find places to put them in Louisiana where the right hookups?like electricity and water?are available." Later in the interview, the FEMA official, referring to New Orleans, offered, "Mobile homes can't be put in floodplains."
The need for temporary housing is still greatest in the neighborhoods that have been evacuated. Workers are needed to clean up and rebuild New Orleans. And employees are needed to restart the businesses struggling to regain their footing. But for workers to return, their families have to have somewhere to live and to go back to school.
Only 2,700 of the 25,000 perfectly adequate trailers used for temporary housing and purchased for more than $850 million had been installed by mid-February, 2006; nearly half of them were sitting in mud in Hope, Arkansas, waiting to be shipped and put to use. Tax dollars are paying for this travesty of a recovery program in a part of the country that Congress is trying hard to forget. There was at least one major military base in Louisiana that might have been a good medium-term housing solution; ironically, it was closed in 1992 through the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. England Air Force Base in Alexandria, Louisiana, a few hours north of New Orleans, was temporarily used to house about two hundred evacuees. Although a mixed-use property, surely it could have been considered as a location for trailers or other temporary housing. Yet, through February 2006, the government spent $249 million commissioning four cruise ships to provide more than 8,000 cabins for this purpose. The cost of some $5,100 per month per cabin was six times the going rate to rent a two-bedroom apartment. I am still wondering how this makes sense.