Nagin, FEMA meet on trailer issue

Published 4:53 pm Friday, February 29, 2008

Mayor Ray Nagin met with FEMA officials a day after his office released a scathing letter in which he called a plan to move people in federally-issued trailers to apartments and hotels inappropriate because of limited housing here 2 1/2 years after Hurricane Katrina.

Wednesday’s meeting, planned before Nagin fired off the letter to President Bush and pushed back due to a scheduling conflict, was constructive, said Bob Josephson, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency who attended.

“In fact, in the end, he said, ‘I’m very appreciative of you guys,’ meaning us at FEMA,” Josephson said Thursday.

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A spokeswoman for Nagin didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the meeting. It was mentioned Thursday by city recovery director, Ed Blakely, who attended the meeting and during a news conference spoke about steps Nagin’s administration was looking at to crack down on vacant or derelict properties.

Federal rebuilding aid for homeowners is “coming in, so there’s few excuses,” he said. “Trailers need to be removed from front yards; houses need to be fixed up.”

Blakely said officials talked about possible “door-to-door services,” particularly for those in trailers, to find out what’s standing in the way of their moving back into their homes. Most of the 7,833 trailers remaining in the city as of Tuesday were on private property, FEMA said.

FEMA has set June 1 as the target for getting as many people as possible out of trailers. Testing of 519 trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi — results of which were released earlier this month — found formaldehyde fumes were on average about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes. Formaldehyde, a preservative commonly used in construction materials, can lead to breathing problems; it is also believed to cause cancer.

Josephson said FEMA offered Nagin help if the city moves forward with a trailer “deactivation” plan. In similar situations, he said FEMA workers have met or spoken with those in trailers to work on housing plans and to see that they’re working toward self-sufficiency.

FEMA, which has been offering lists of rental options to those in trailers, has identified about 2,100 rentals in the city and estimates 2,000 pre-Katrina renters are still in trailers, Josephson said. Many of those rental units, about 1,270, are at fair-market rate or less, he said. He did not have further breakdowns.

The availability of affordable housing has been a concern in the city. Nagin, in his letter dated Feb. 22, said there was “insufficient housing” to relocate New Orleanians from trailers.

Nagin wrote he wanted the government to make “gap financing” available to homeowners in trailers, to pick up where rebuilding aid from other sources have fallen short and help them make remaining repairs. He also said he wanted such things as free checkups for current and former trailer residents and free treatment of any medical conditions “generated or exacerbated” by formaldehyde exposure.

Josephson declined comment on those proposals, and the rest of the letter. However, he said, “We’re going to work with the mayor to do everything that’s within our rules and regulations and under the law. We’re going to look for flexibility where we can, as we always have, and from the very beginning of the disaster.”