3 years after Katrina, cast out again

Times Staff Writer

Curtis Westbrook cut a lonely figure as he sat outside his trailer this week, chain-smoking as workmen hauled another empty trailer away.

He had already loaded all of his belongings -- a television and some dishes and clothes -- into his white Jeep Cherokee. But he was not sure how far the old Jeep would make it. With the motor mounts broken, he had rigged the engine on wooden sticks.

In any case, he was not sure where to go. He had barely a day to meet the deadline to vacate the Renaissance Village trailer park, and he didn’t know whether he could pay $400 a month for an apartment in nearby Baton Rouge. So he just sat there, waiting.


Westbrook, 53, is one of hundreds of residents across the Gulf Coast struggling to leave trailer parks by today. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, pressed by reports of potentially hazardous formaldehyde levels in trailers, is rushing to close its last six emergency trailer parks by the first day of hurricane season.

FEMA says that no one will be kicked out of their trailer parks if they haven’t found a place to stay. With 27 of the 575 units at Renaissance Village in Baker still occupied Saturday, an agency spokesman acknowledged it might take a few more days to empty the park.

Yet critics accuse the agency of pressing residents to leave before they have found permanent housing. With affordable apartments in short supply, some are relocating to motels -- they can stay there for up to 30 days while they hunt for a new residence. Even those who have found rental apartments and houses do not necessarily have a plan for paying the rent when the government’s emergency subsidies run out.

“I’m under more stress now than in the hurricane,” said Ghulam Nasim, 79, a retired doctor who had wrapped his clothes up in sheets but remained in his trailer poring over a stack of letters he had written to FEMA’s director requesting an extension.

“They don’t even do me the courtesy of responding,” he said. “It’s just, ‘When are you going to leave? When are you going to leave?’ They don’t seem to care where we end up.”

Life is still precarious for many who were displaced after Hurricane Katrina, especially those who remain in the government trailer parks. The parks were emergency shelters, but they also served as mass halfway homes where thousands of low-income residents, mostly from New Orleans, could adjust to the soaring rents and fractured social networks of post-Katrina life.

Renaissance Village was once the biggest emergency trailer park in the United States, but more than 500 households have relocated to apartments, homes and hotels. Most of those who remain in the trailers just north of Baton Rouge are poor, elderly or disabled. Some struggle with depression or are resistant to change; others are convicted felons or have drug and alcohol addictions.

“He will just sit there for the rest of his life if no one intervenes,” Sister Judith Brun, a Roman Catholic nun coordinating assistance, said Thursday of one resident on her list of tenants who had yet to secure homes. “And this woman,” she said, pointing to another name, “she’s about to have a nervous breakdown.”

Moving is an immense challenge for residents without access to transportation or phones. At midweek, with the deadline looming, there were almost as many recovery workers and caseworkers at the park as residents. They scrambled to help people tour apartments, fax leases to landlords, track down copies of birth certificates.

And still the requests kept coming in: Were there any boxes? How could they get a U-Haul truck?

Even those who have already moved face problems. Some are in apartments without furniture. Others are concerned about where they will go when the government’s emergency subsidies run out. As early as Friday afternoon, residents in hotels began to call, saying they were hungry. A volunteer was dispatched to Sam’s Club to buy microwaveable macaroni and cheese, bread, and peanut butter and jelly.

Most of the households leaving the trailer parks are eligible for emergency government-subsidized housing until March. Those who cannot prove where they were living before Katrina will get FEMA housing aid for one month.

“They just want you to get out of here, but they don’t care where you move,” said Bryan Hebert, 46, who moved to an apartment but returned to the trailer park last week to eat and work out a long-term housing plan. Hebert is not eligible for FEMA funding because he cannot track down his old New Orleans landlord. He said he had trouble finding work without a vehicle or good access to public transportation.

“I just pray to God and hope he brings me the answer,” he said as he dipped a saltine cracker into a can of tuna.

Despite the problems, almost all of the last residents at Renaissance Village said they were eager to leave.

Lorraine Autman, 63, who had already checked in to the Chase Suites hotel in Baton Rouge, returned to the trailer park Friday to finish packing. Most of her neighbors had left, and all that remained were a trail of discarded possessions: a yellow-handled mop, a potato peeler, a deflated birthday balloon, oyster shells, Mardi Gras beads and an empty Fruit Smiles carton.

Inside the trailer, she found the air conditioner broken and the empty refrigerator crawling with tiny roaches.

“I’m not going to miss this place,” she said.

All she wanted to do was get back to Chase Suites and turn on her faucets until her bathtub was high. The tub, she said, would ease her worries about how to pay $1,100 a month rent on a fixed income of $756.

“It’s the long-term perspective that makes you stress,” she said, as she trudged over a field that was already beginning to look more like a pasture than a metropolis of the dispossessed.