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FEMA deadline approaches for those still in trailers

More than 31,000 trailers issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency are still in use in Mississippi as a February deadline to vacate them bears down.

Inhabitants of the trailers displaced by Hurricane Katrina have until Feb. 28 to find other housing, a deadline many are struggling to meet.

“FEMA is authorized to provide disaster assistance, including travel trailers, 18 months following the presidential disaster declaration,” which began Aug. 29, 2005, when Katrina struck, FEMA spokesman Eugene Brezany said.

Gov. Haley Barbour has requested a one-year extension to allow victims a chance to clear the many obstacles they face in returning to normal lives. So far, there’s been no word.

“We’re still awaiting the response,” Barbour spokesman Pete Smith said.

Dorothy Smith, who received a three-bedroom FEMA trailer about a month ago, said making the deadline would be impossible.

“I’m just now getting comfortable in here,” she said.

She got a late start on seeking aid and doesn’t know what she’ll do if forced to leave in two months.

“I’d never been through this — I didn’t know anything about FEMA,” Smith said. “I wasn’t quick to get in the race like everyone else. … I fell through the cracks for some time.”

If the extension is granted, local governments will decide the fate of group trailer parks and individual permits on private property, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Ashley Roth said.

Hattiesburg officials already have begun discussing what to do if an extension is granted. City Council President Carter Carroll, whose home was damaged by Katrina, said it took him 13 months to return to his residence.

He said an extension should be given on a 90-day basis so progress can be monitored.

“If anyone had any problem with insurance or their bank or finding a contractor, I could see where it would take more than 18 months,” Carroll said. “But if somebody is in a trailer and they haven’t even begun to do anything, that’s a different circumstance.”

Mayor Johnny DuPree said cases should be handled individually, but that the city must be sympathetic to those who haven’t been able to complete repairs.

And there are many people in that situation, said Sheila Varnado, long-term recovery manager of R3SM, a Katrina-response arm of the Hattiesburg-area United Way chapter.

The group, which stands for Recover, Rebuild, Restore South Mississippi, assists families with home repairs and other recovery issues in Forrest, Lamar and Perry counties.

“We continue to have about 600-plus families that need assistance,” said Varnado, who noted many still live in FEMA trailers. “There’s no way that people will have a viable solution to their housing needs by February ’07.”