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30 Days’ Notice at the FEMA Trailer

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Times Staff Writer

The mail carrier brought the registered letter to Jessica Lessard’s tiny trailer, along with a sour and foreboding comment:

“I hope you got better news than I got,” she said.

Lessard, 24, tore open the envelope and felt like crying. The letter was from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It said she and her family had 30 days to leave the flimsy, government-issued box that has been their home since Hurricane Katrina.

Three weeks later, Lessard; her fiance, George Courtney; and their 3-year-old son are still worried, though they have appealed their case. The house they once shared with Courtney’s stepfather was ruined by the storm, and they can’t afford the Gulf Coast’s post-Katrina rents. Nearby relatives are also in trailers or in homes with no room for them.

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Lessard’s family is one of about 3,000 in Mississippi that have been deemed ineligible for a trailer as FEMA weeds out those Katrina victims who do not meet the qualifications for its emergency housing program.

About 450 households have received eviction letters from FEMA; the rest are scheduled to receive notices in the next few weeks. Mississippi has 38,000 FEMA trailers. Some are clustered on open fields and parking lots; others are parked next to water-spoiled homes.

(Similar eviction efforts are underway in Louisiana, which has 68,000 trailers sprinkled around the state. There, however, officials are in the early stages of screening, and only 57 ineligible families have been identified, an agency spokeswoman said.)

The reasons for the evictions are varied, and many are legitimate. There are trailer dwellers who could not prove they are legal U.S. residents; people who had owned a second, undamaged home all along; and people whose homes were damaged, but not by Katrina.

The trailers, which are generally 240 square feet, are returned to a FEMA staging area in Purvis, Miss., where they are cleaned and repaired, then stored until they are needed again.

But a number of residents said they were being kicked out erroneously, or for technicalities that arise from gray areas in FEMA regulations. Lessard’s problem is one of the most common: FEMA officials told her she was ineligible because someone from her previous residence had also requested a trailer.

Lessard said her fiance’s stepfather had indeed received a FEMA mobile home -- it is crammed with six people. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she can’t have one. FEMA guidelines say the agency “may consider” more than one housing application from extended families who were living on one property before the storm.

If Lessard and Courtney lose their appeal, they figure they’ll go to a hotel for a few days. They can imagine the money running out there, but they cannot imagine what comes next.

“We really ain’t got no place to go,” said Courtney, 28, who is making about $8 an hour working at an auto parts store. “I just started a new job. We ain’t got no money saved up.”

Affordable housing is in short supply on a coast that largely remains in ruins more than eight months after the storm. Rents have soared about 25% to 30%, according to the Biloxi Ocean Springs Assn. of Realtors. More than half the coast’s subsidized housing stock was uninhabitable as of mid-April, according to a survey by the Mississippi Center for Justice, a public interest law firm.

Just one shelter on the coast is open, and it accepts only men, said Natalie Presley of the Back Bay Mission, a homeless services center in Biloxi.

“We’re two weeks before the resumption of a new hurricane season,” said Reilly Morse, a Center for Justice attorney who has been helping people appeal their evictions. “Now FEMA is making a catastrophe worse, if that’s possible. It’s taking people and putting them on the street, essentially.”

FEMA is particularly sensitive about the eviction letters. Eugene Brezany, an agency spokesman, insisted that they not be called “evictions” at all. He said the notifications, which began going out in late April, were preceded by letters that alerted residents to their ineligible status. He also said residents are given 60 days to appeal.

“We’re not requesting anything unreasonable,” he said.

But in at least some cases, the original letters were vaguely worded. Lessard’s first letter from FEMA, dated Dec. 7, said she did not qualify for “rental assistance.” It mentioned nothing about her trailer, which FEMA has been providing to her rent-free. So she thought she had nothing to worry about.

Morse noted that the 60-day appeal process is of little use to residents who are evicted while their appeal is pending. He worried that the letters were scaring off poorly educated people who don’t understand how to file an appeal.

The effect of the letters was evident throughout Lessard’s neighborhood, the End of the Rainbow RV park, a maze of gravel driveways lined with white FEMA trailers next to a junkyard.

Heather Walden, the manager, said that about a third of the park’s 90-plus households had moved away in recent weeks. Most, she said, had been scared off by the eviction notices. She walked by some of the empty trailers. On one door was a notice from FEMA.

“You have been assigned a FEMA Housing Advisor,” it stated. “We have not been able to contact you by telephone and must speak with you right away.”

The park manager shook her head. She had no idea what had become of this family. It was like that with most of the families who left.

“It’s a mess, it really is,” said Walden, 27, who received an eviction notice herself but was able to fight it with the help of a pro bono lawyer. “It’s not right what they’re doing.”

She introduced Frankie Owens, whose rental home in nearby Saucier was destroyed in the storm. Owens is illiterate. But he sensed something was awry when a registered envelope was delivered to his FEMA trailer a few weeks ago.

He took it across the gravel drive to Walden, who read him the terms of his eviction. “I’m 55 years old and disabled, and they’re going to throw me out of here,” Owens said, his voice rising in anger. He said he had no idea where he would go next.

Elsewhere in Mississippi, residents are fighting FEMA officials who determined that their homes did not sustain enough damage for them to qualify for trailers.

Diana McBride’s rental house suffered roof damage and mold. FEMA, she said, determined that it was livable. But she says she cannot stay there because the mold exacerbates her chronic bronchitis and asthma.

McBride, 53, has appealed her case and is hoping to stay in the Gulfport trailer that FEMA provided her around Christmas.

“They tell me that even with my appeal, on the 21st I have to be gone,” McBride said.

Julia East of Long Beach, Miss., returned to her own mobile home six days after Katrina to find it had been knocked off its foundation and flooded.

FEMA gave East, her husband and two sons a trailer, and $1,800 to fix up their mobile home. That was enough to clear away three large trees that fell on the home and to set it back on its blocks.

But East said water still pours down the inside of the walls when it rains. The family has been crammed into the 8-by-30-foot FEMA trailer, which they set up a few yards away.

Last month, East said, she received a phone call from FEMA asking if she was ready to give up the trailer. She panicked, and thought about the month the family spent living in tents on their property immediately after the storm.

East, 33, was able to find a lawyer who helped her file an appeal at no charge. She is frightened of what will happen if the appeal falls through. Her husband has a good job in a computer plant, but the family is still paying off debt from her cancer treatments.

“We can’t finance a piece of bubblegum,” she said.

If FEMA takes away her trailer, she said, she will unfold her tents once again.


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