Interim Housing Following Disasters: The FEMA Temporary Housing Program

After presidentially declared disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers Direct Assistance – in the form of campers, trailers, and mobile homes – to those who are without shelter. Direct Assistance is available to eligible applicants in addition to cash grants.

Disaster survivors are often assigned a camper, trailer, or mobile home after they have been made homeless; the temporary accommodations provided are frequently not suitable for extended use in harsh climates, though, and more often than not were intended for recreational use by their manufacturers. They also are generally not designed for long-term use in extremely hot or cold climates, and lack adequate insulation as well. Most do not have a reliable ventilation, humidification, or dehumidification system. For that reason, the inside air may not be properly conditioned, significant mold can develop, and various other related problems may result.

One example of such problems, and the additional difficulties created for the suddenly homeless: Because of the higher levels of humidity prevalent in the warmer months of the year, cloth materials such as upholstery and stored clothing grow significant mold throughout the campers. In some of the hotter months, moreover, air conditioners often cannot maintain a safe cooler temperature for any extended period of time. Just the reverse happens in colder months, though, when heaters cannot keep up with the lower temperatures. One distressing result of the latter problem is that pets left unattended have perished due to equipment malfunctions and the rapid changes in temperature that follow. Yet another problem is that pipes often freeze in colder months, rendering indoor plumbing inoperable.

Too Many Problems, Not Enough Time

Further exacerbating the already difficult situation is that, because of the large numbers of complaints received, it can sometimes take weeks for the official agencies and private-sector organizations involved to respond to these problems, leaving the families and children living in the trailers and mobile homes, etc., to fend for themselves.

The provision of temporary housing following disasters has been a continuing challenge to FEMA ever since its creation in 1979. The agency is now looking for a solution through various sections of the Stafford Act – which not only authorizes FEMA to meet immediate threats to life and property resulting from a major disaster but also permits it to contribute financially to state and local governments for the repair, restoration, and replacement of damaged public facilities – as possible avenues to engage the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the temporary housing program, or at least to assume some of the responsibilities now shouldered by FEMA.

Most recently, Hurricane Katrina challenged the agency more than ever before. Within days of Katrina’s landfall in August of 2005, FEMA ordered nearly $2.7 billion worth of trailers and mobile homes to house storm victims. Manufacturers produced the trailers with extraordinary speed. Very soon thereafter, though, some residents reported unusual illnesses – frequently accompanied by breathing problems, burning eyes, noses, and throats, and even, tragically, a few deaths. Eventually, an estimated 300,000 people who had been uprooted by Katrina were living in FEMA homes. Subsequently, though, about 17,000 plaintiffs have alleged damaging health consequences, naming 64 trailer makers and the federal government as defendants in collective-action lawsuits.

A Long But Welcome List of Belated Initiatives

Since the not quite three years that have passed since Katrina, FEMA has established a Gulf Coast Housing Strategy Action Plan, which is monitored and supervised by FEMA’s own Gulf Coast Recovery Office. Other organizational changes have included the establishment of a number of FEMA Transitional Recovery Offices – which have developed new Housing Action Plans in certain individually declared states – as well as a Joint Federal/State Housing Relocation Task Force.

Additionally, since early 2006, FEMA: (a) has offered immediate alternative housing to those who have asked to move out of their assigned units for any reason, including concerns about formaldehyde; and (b) has been actively looking for ways to increase the rental resources available to the applicants by using a large and varied number of outside resources. Among those resources, according to Carlos Castillo, assistant administrator for the FEMA Disaster Assistance Directorate – who discussed the situation in recent testimony before Congress – are HUD’s National Housing Locator System, various Internet sites, classified ads in newspapers, realtor associations and real-estate magazines, local governments and agencies (e.g., city halls and chambers of commerce), landlord “housing fairs,” and simple word of mouth.

Castillo’s testimony, which was requested by both the Financial Services Committee and the Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, covered a broad cross-section of interrelated topics, including but not limited to: the Gulf Coast Housing Strategy Action Plan; the Joint Federal/State Housing Relocation Task Force; the Disaster Housing Assistance Program; a HUD/FEMA Memorandum of Understanding (on the National Housing Strategy); the agency’s 2008 Disaster Housing Plan; several state-led Housing Solutions Task Forces; various “Alternate Housing Options”; the Alternative Housing Pilot Program; and the Joint Housing Solutions Group.

Significant Help Provided by the Private Sector

In addition to the numerous federal initiatives developed and being pursued in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it is worth pointing out, the troubled housing situation that developed at that difficult time also mobilized legions of volunteers, including a number of highly respected architects, to take matters into their own hands in an effort to build more permanent housing. Following are a few of the more notable examples of the private-sector successes recorded during that difficult period:

1. Brett Zamore, working with $3.3 million provided from Oprah’s Angel Network, opened an operation for Architecture for Humanity in Biloxi, Mississippi, with 250 volunteers who helped residents rebuild or replace their homes. The volunteers designed, among other things, a 1,415 square-foot shotgun/dogtrot called the Parker House at a cost of $135,000.

2. Lowe’s Katrina Cottage, designed by Marianne Cusato, was made available for construction at $120,000 per unit. There are 18 more house designs in the Lowe’s line; most are approximately 697 square-foot two-bedroom homes.

3. Looney Ricks Kiss built a number of 400 square-foot cottages at a unit cost of $50,000; the cottages were used, as an alternative to the FEMA trailers, by over 2,000 families in Mississippi.

Not incidentally, all of the cost figures cited above include labor costs as well as the costs for plumbing, wiring, fixtures, cabinets, and other “add-ons” not always included in the “total costs” advertised by some unscrupulous realtors.

In Greensburg, Kansas, where 95 percent of the community’s homes were completely destroyed last year, the housing crisis was both dramatic and acute, and the community was more satisfied with the FEMA temporary housing than the Katrina refugees had been. In the Greensburg case, FEMA developed a mobile home group site, named Keller Estates, on the southeast edge of town — which is now making a solid recovery.

FEMA also has established new and more stringent air-quality specifications for factory-built housing units. In addition, the agency recently released its new (2008) Disaster Housing Plan: Operational Guidance for Housing Disaster Victims – in which the agency has set four priorities for action: (1) maximizing available housing resources; (2) using traditional forms of interim housing; (3) employing innovative forms of interim housing; and (4) authorizing permanent construction when and where feasible.

The 2008 FEMA Disaster Housing Plan can be accessed at: https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=486675

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss is the President of World Disaster Management, LLC. Her emergency management work began 40 years ago, as senior assistant to two state governors coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years, at the Texas firm, Electronic Data Systems (EDS) as senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She currently serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management, and as graduate professor of Emergency Management at University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured IAEM CEM Mentor for five years, and Chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010. She is also on the Advisory Board for Domestic Preparedness.

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