FEMA closes Louisiana mobile home park housing Katrina victims over health and safety concerns

Published 7:35 pm Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Dozens of families evacuated from a FEMA trailer park that had been plagued by sewage leaks and power outages were in temporary homes Monday, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had requested work permits to dismantle the site this week.

Many of the residents were moved to other FEMA locations in the Hammond area, agency spokesman Manuel Broussard said.

“Some families were concerned about schooling for their children, and we have found housing for them close to their schools,” Broussard said. Likewise, he said, the agency has kept people who had jobs in Hammond close to town.

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For Allsee Tobias, though, it still felt like yet another failure of the federal government to help Hurricane Katrina victims, even if the goal was to safeguard their health.

“They know how to put me out, but they don’t know how to help me out. That’s how I look at it,” said Tobias, who lost his New Orleans home in Katrina’s flooding and then was told to leave his Hammond trailer over the weekend. He and about 20 relatives, including 10 children, lived in four trailers, and were anxious about being split up.

“Pack and pray. That’s what they told us,” he said.

FEMA abruptly closed down the mobile home park because of ongoing problems with raw sewage that pours onto the grass. FEMA said electricity was cut off last week for the third time since Oct. 12; Broussard said the landowners hadn’t paid bills on time, while Frank Bonner, a co-owner of the site, said FEMA hadn’t paid on time.

A 48-hour deadline to leave fell on Sunday night, and FEMA scrambled to find new places for the 58 households.

By late Sunday, 48 of the 58 households had places to go to, with many of those households moving on to other FEMA sites, the agency said. Monday morning, Broussard said that Catholic Charities, a Catholic social work outreach program, had offered to temporarily house the 10 remaining households.

“This is a very quick, decisive move because of concern for the residents,” Broussard said.

The site, on the edge of town in loblolly pine country about 45 miles northwest of New Orleans, was one of the dozens of compounds the government rushed to establish for the tens of thousands of displaced hurricane victims.

Its displaced residents said they questioned the genuineness of the sudden concern for their health because the stink of sewage has been a nuisance for about a year.

“It’s very unhealthy. The question is why did it take a year?” said Ron Harrell.

He lived next to the site’s sewage treatment system with his family, and the stink of sewage filled the air as he spoke. He said his two sons have repeatedly complained of health problems, which he said could be related to the sewage.

FEMA personnel swarmed over the bustling site Sunday, trying to help wherever they could. The agency moved residents’ belongings in rental vans and agreed to pay to put some people’s boxes and bags in storage, especially those residents moving into tighter quarters.

“We have 150 people working on site today to make this as easy as possible. But it is a difficult situation,” Broussard said Sunday. He said Monday that FEMA hoped to have the site completely dismantled by the end of the week.