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FEMA: Miss. ‘Katrina cottage’ plans better than La.’s

Mississippi’s proposals to spend new federal recovery money on quick-assemble “Katrina cottages” were more competitive than plans offered by other Gulf Coast states, FEMA said Friday, amid complaints that Louisiana’s Hurricane Katrina victims were being treated unfairly in the division of the cash.

Mississippi will get $281 million through the $400 million alternative housing pilot program. Louisiana will receive $75 million to pay for the larger and more permanent modular replacements for cramped trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Had we strictly stayed with the competitive bid process that money would have all gone to one state,” said Gil Jamieson, FEMA Deputy Director for Gulf Coast Recovery. “Mississippi had in the competitive rankings the most competitive housing proposals.”

Louisiana officials, including U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Gov. Kathleen Blanco, say their neighboring state suffered less damage in the 2005 hurricane season and shouldn’t get 70 percent of the Katrina cottage money. Landrieu called the divvying up of the new money “FEMA’s upside down decision-making.”

Blanco, a Democrat, blamed FEMA’s decision on a “cruel Republican agenda” and partisan politics — Mississippi’s governor is Republican. She said state officials would seek parity when the Democrats take control of Congress, asking for as much a $1.2 billion for Louisiana to build Katrina cottages.

“We in Louisiana got shortchanged one more time, got cheated out of opportunity one more time,” Blanco said.

An estimated 75,000 Louisiana residents and 80,000 Mississippi residents are living in FEMA-issued trailers. Thousands of Louisiana residents also are living out of state, and the federal agency is spending nearly $1 million a day on additional rental assistance for Louisianians, said Natalie Wyeth, a spokeswoman for Blanco’s Louisiana Recovery Authority.

The nation’s five Gulf Coast states competed for the pilot program dollars to test and build alternative housing that FEMA hopes can become a model for how to provide housing after another disaster, whether it’s a tornado, earthquake or hurricane. Congress earmarked the money to create the Katrina cottage program.

Hurricane Katrina flooded and devastated most of New Orleans and many of the nearby coastal communities on Aug. 29, 2005. Hurricane Rita delivered a follow-up blow to Louisiana a month later. Landrieu said Katrina and Rita destroyed more than 205,000 homes in Louisiana compared to 61,000 in Mississippi.

Hurricane victims and local, state and federal officials have complained the dollars FEMA has spent on cramped, flimsy travel trailers could be more wisely spent on more adaptable, starter homes that disaster victims could expand and ultimately own. However, FEMA was limited by federal law to provide mobile homes and travel trailers until Congress set up the alternative housing pilot program.

The states submitted 29 individual plans for the money, triple the available dollars. FEMA selected projects that could be constructed, moved and installed quickly and easily, Jamieson said. He said he didn’t know how many people would receive housing through the pilot program.

Jamieson said the program wasn’t based on need, but on inventiveness and ways to improve FEMA housing in future disasters.

A large part of Mississippi’s money won’t go to permanent housing, but rather to “travel trailers with enhancements” like attics, mold-resistant materials and a front porch, according to FEMA explanations of the projects. The trailers will remain permanently on wheels like the travel trailers currently used by FEMA.

Louisiana submitted six proposals and got money for one — the Cypress Cottage Partners Project. It plans elevated modular homes in Louisiana’s unique architectural styles on four sites: Jackson Barracks in eastern New Orleans, the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans, Abbeville and Lake Charles.

About 600 Katrina cottages can be built with the $75 million program, Blanco said. The actual sites will be determined in negotiations with FEMA that will be completed by the end of January, said Jeff Hebert, the Louisiana Recovery Authority’s deputy director of planning.

The per-unit cost to build the cottages in Louisiana’s selected proposal was estimated to be about $60,000, with two options, a single family manufactured home with a porch and two- or three-bedroom layouts or multifamily units.

Alabama and Texas each will receive about $16 million for alternative housing plans. The other $12 million will cover administrative and other program costs.