Supervisor bats the housing issue back into FEMA’s court

Published 2:43 am Sunday, March 8, 2009

The problem of who is going set the deadline that will force residents out of federally funded temporary housing units is back in Federal Emergency Management Agency’s court says Anthony Hales, Pearl River County Board of Supervisors’ presidents.

“What I am most interested in is should FEMA be taking more aggressive steps to get those in the travel trailers out,” said Hales, adding that since FEMA provided the housing and case management, he believes they shouldo be scrutinizing those living in the temporary units more closely, weeding out those who can’t move due to financial restraints from those who just won’t.

“I think some people have the means to get out, but choose not to do so,” said Hales. He thinks FEMA is asking local jurisdictions to set a deadline and, in essence, to be the bad guy in the problem. “If the local governmental agency sets a deadline, that gives them (FEMA) an out.”

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Pearl River County still has more than 350 families living in mobile homes or travel trailers supplied by FEMA following Hurricane Katrina. The federal government had set a March 1 deadline to remove the units, but extended that deadline to May 1.

FEMA approached the Pearl River County Board of Supervisors last month and asked supervisors to set a co-deadline for residents living in the temporary units, saying that if the county set a date, FEMA then could enforce the removal of the units.

Phil Strouse, an intergovernmental affairs liaison for FEMA, told board members last month that the federal government did not have the authority to evict anyone living in the temporary units or to just pull the units out.

That was backed by FEMA public relations spokesman Eugene Brezany, who wrote in an email, “FEMA offers temporary housing for a temporary period of time.” He said that unless local authorities set a deadline such as the May 1 federal one, FEMA will continue to provide the temporary housing. “Unless curtailed by local jurisdiction, FEMA is authorized to continue to provide housing assistance,” wrote Brezany. “However, in cases where local jurisdiction imposes earlier deadlines or other restrictions, FEMA works under limits set by local jurisdiction.”

Even so, said Hales, FEMA should be the one to follow through with what it started and not try and put the financial and physical burden of finding the solution to the housing problem for the residents, on the county’s shoulders at this point.

Saying that since FEMA originally placed the residents in the units, Hales said it should be FEMA’s responsibility to do more to move the residents out of the travel trailers, not Pearl River County taxpayers. “I feel FEMA is not doing what it takes to find out who can move and who won’t,” said Hales. “I feel they need to get more personal … see if (the residents) have put in an application for more permanent housing … and if they are living on property where there is a damaged home, are they doing any repairs on them?”

Hales said the real issue the county does need to deal with is what to do for those who do not have the means to move. “The board does have a concern for the people,” he said. “If we do have people who do not have the means to find a more suitable place to live, maybe we have to seek more resources to try and get them into suitable housing.”

He said he had brought up the issue of affordable housing to the board when FEMA said the deadline had been extended, Hales said he did that because he wanted board to recognize a problem the county is facing.

Hales said that too many times in the past, when a developer came before the former board wanting approval for a subdivision of affordable housing for low to moderate income residents, an uproar would follow from those near the proposed site resulting in the project being voted down. “I wanted to raise the awareness of the board that if we have developments come before the board for low to moderate housing,” said Hales, “that we need to really take these type of developments seriously.”

Hales said the FEMA deadline was a positive thing in some ways. It has “illuminated the problem that affordable housing is needed in Pearl River County.”

Hales put the ball back into FEMA’s court, saying he believes that with the amount of money FEMA has sunk into the continued housing of the county’s displaced residents, the federal government could have more than likely been able to solve this issue before it come down to this push to evict them from FEMA-provided housing.

“If you put the money in the right place, you can solve the problem,” Hales said. “There is a solution; you don’t have to always go down the same road.”