As storms and fires become more severe, disaster housing policy has failed to keep up, leaving people displaced for months on end.
Dec. 5, 2021, 3:00 a.m. ET
HOUMA, La. — In Tammy Manuel’s neighborhood, hulking piles of debris fester at the edges of lawns cleared to make way for thousands of mobile homes intended for families who saw their homes destroyed by Hurricane Ida in late August.
But three months after the storm tore the roof off her pale yellow house down the bayou from Houma in southeast Louisiana, sending the ceilings crashing in and soaking her belongings, the yards of Ms. Manuel and many of her neighbors are still bare.
Like thousands of others in the rural communities hardest hit by the storm, Ms. Manuel said she requested assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency right away. But FEMA said that the first trailers — boxy structures also known as manufactured housing units — wouldn’t arrive until mid-November.
Instead, the agency offered Ms. Manuel a voucher to reimburse her for a hotel or her rent elsewhere. But many of the area’s already limited available houses and hotels were destroyed or full of recovery workers. That left Ms. Manuel and her two siblings, whose mobile homes were also left uninhabitable, seeking shelter at the closest hotel they could find, a two-hour drive west in Abbeville, La.
Ms. Manuel is still there, making the commute back home multiple times a week to salvage what she can. She and many of her neighbors who were devastated at losing everything are now frustrated at the lack of safe housing options near their homes and jobs.
As climate change contributes to more punishing natural disasters across the country, federal agencies have repeatedly failed to provide temporary housing swiftly in their wake, exposing wide gaps in disaster policy. In fact, since Hurricane Ida, a makeshift effort by the state of Louisiana has been more successful in providing short-term shelter to storm victims than FEMA has been.
“This process of bringing in units is complicated, it’s complex, it takes time,” said Keith Turi, assistant administrator of recovery at FEMA. The agency has secured enough units to house everyone who needs one after Hurricane Ida, he said, but the challenge is how and where to put them.
“They’re each like miniature construction projects,” Mr. Turi said, noting that topography, debris and utility hookups can present obstacles at each site. It’s expensive, too: Each unit can cost about $200,000 altogether, according to disaster housing experts.
It wasn’t until November of 2021 that every resident was placed in temporary housing after Hurricane Laura hit southwest Louisiana in August of 2020, though many residents were put in units before then. After Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area in August of 2017, it wasn’t until the following June that every resident was placed in a unit.
At issue is not just competence but difficult policy choices still being debated. Is supplying housing for disaster victims the appropriate role for government? If so, which level of government? And how long after a disaster do victims need housing assistance?
“It can be done if there’s a will,” said Laurie Schoeman, a disaster recovery specialist for Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit. But FEMA has steered away from direct housing toward rental and hotel vouchers.
“FEMA doesn’t want to be in the business of housing,” Ms. Schoeman said.
Caught in the middle are people like Ms. Manuel and her neighbors, some of whom have resorted to sleeping in cars or tents or inside moldy, damaged homes. Some have doubled or tripled up with family and friends.
“It seems like they would already have steps, like: This is what we do when something happens,” said Ms. Manuel. “It’s like they’re trying to figure out what to do next instead of already knowing.”
More than three months after Hurricane Ida tore through coastal Louisiana, likely thousands of residents of the hardest hit bayou communities southwest of New Orleans remain displaced. Just 126 households out of the 4,465 found eligible by FEMA for direct housing had moved into units, according to a FEMA spokeswoman. There is no estimated timeline for completion.
After months of waiting for FEMA housing, Ms. Manuel’s older brother and sister finally received help from a different source: The state provided them each with a trailer, part of a new program to meet the acute housing need. The program has rolled out much more quickly than FEMA’s: By the beginning of December about 1,200 families had moved into Louisiana’s trailers — campers that can be towed by a vehicle — with another 800 expected to move in over the coming weeks. But the program, started from scratch, faced delays, too.
On Nov. 10, more than two months after the storm, just 368 families had moved into trailers. And while the more compact trailers may be easier to set up, they are less sturdy over the long term. Plus, they can be used for only six months under the state’s current agreement with FEMA.
Given the logistical challenges of setting up direct housing, FEMA views trailers as a last resort, Mr. Turi said.
In the aftermath of several major hurricanes in 2017 and 2018, FEMA provided rental assistance to 745,660 households, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. It provided direct housing — through trailers, mostly— to just 5,368.
But in the wake of far-ranging disasters like Hurricane Ida that cut a wide swath in the available housing, housing experts say these assistance funds are a weak substitute for direct housing, especially in rural areas with few hotels.
FEMA’s shift away from direct housing began after Hurricane Katrina, when trailers used to house the displaced were found to have high levels of formaldehyde. Since then, when direct housing has been necessary, the agency has tended toward larger, sturdier manufactured housing units and abided by strict rules and regulations, and an often lengthy process for determining eligibility.
But the delays in providing temporary housing have subjected disaster victims to other dangers.
Christine Ledet spent nearly three months using a generator for electricity after the storm’s winds lifted her mobile home off its pilings and moved it eight feet away. She received $13,000 from FEMA for repairs, she said — enough to put it back in place. But the money is not enough to repair the windows that were blown in, the electric box that was damaged or the mold spreading on her walls, she said. Her appeal is pending.
“The people that really need the trailers and the campers are the ones that don’t have nothing,” said Ms. Ledet, who’s been sharing her damaged home with her granddaughter and daughter-in-law. “And they’re being overlooked.”
With every passing week that residents wait for temporary housing, the prospect of rebuilding falls further out of reach.
Over a year after Hurricane Laura, Lake Charles, La., still looks like a ghost town, said Brandi Weldon, a lifelong resident.
In the 10 months before Ms. Weldon’s FEMA trailer arrived after Hurricane Laura tore the roof off her home in Lake Charles, La., she and her sons bounced among the couches of family and friends and hotel beds. Moving around so much was not just difficult but dangerous for Ms. Weldon, who is diabetic. She struggled to set up her home dialysis equipment every night and often had to rely on fast food, which led her blood pressure to spike.
“A lot of people were in a predicament to where they had no choice but to move away,” Ms. Weldon said.
“Our federal programs are federal programs at the end of the day,” said Lauren Lefebvre, public affairs director for a FEMA regional office that includes Louisiana. “They can oftentimes involve a process, there’s paperwork, there’s multiple things you have to do to be able to take advantage of it. And that might not always be the best thing for a survivor.”
That bureaucracy, she said, hampers the agency’s ability to quickly deploy housing and makes it hard for the agency to adapt its disaster response to particular circumstances.
To get around some of this red tape, FEMA has recommended that states design and implement their own temporary housing programs when they are necessary, to be reimbursed by FEMA.
But state and local governments have had difficulty standing up temporary housing programs that would comply with FEMA’s often complex reimbursement policies.
Even Louisiana, among the states most frequently hit by climate disasters, had no temporary housing plans before Hurricane Ida hit.
“Housing is not anywhere in our scope — that’s always been a federal mission here,” said Mike Steele, communications director with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Emergency management experts say that some responsibility for temporary housing necessarily falls on the shoulders of local governments, who know their communities and can more easily identify vulnerable residents and group sites for trailers.
But for many local governments, especially smaller ones on limited budgets, this sort of planning isn’t a priority and often conflicts with FEMA’s approach.
Junia Howell, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh, said that when FEMA relies on a reimbursement model but doesn’t provide state and local governments — especially those with fewer resources — the tools they need to implement their own programs, the system breaks down. “And it breaks down over and over and over again,” she said.
By the time many disaster survivors make it into FEMA housing, they are confronted with a new problem: where to go next.
Ms. Weldon, who moved into her FEMA trailer in June, has less than three months until the FEMA program expires, 18 months after a federal disaster was declared for Hurricane Laura.
In some cases, FEMA trailers can be purchased by recipients for longer-term use. But often, the trailers aren’t compliant with floodplain or wildfire hazard restrictions, leaving FEMA to auction them off for cheap after the disaster period.
With much of the housing stock of Lake Charles still awaiting repairs, and the few available apartments going for hundreds of dollars a month more than they were before the storm, Ms. Weldon is out of options.The long-term struggles after Hurricane Laura are a foreboding message to residents and advocates reeling from Hurricane Ida.
“We’re going to end up in the same situation we’re in now but worse, because they won’t have the trailers to live in,” said Genie Trahan-Ardoin, who has been providing assistance door to door with the Helio Foundation, a local nonprofit.
“Everybody you talk to, you ask them, ‘What are you going to do?’” she said. “They say, ‘I don’t know.’ ”