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Storm survivors face uncertainty

Faith-based disaster responders are calling for a clearer national vision for relocation and long-term recovery.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | November 21, 2005

"Part of what makes this worse is that decisions haven't been made about what's going to happen in the Gulf area about reconstruction."

—John Robinson

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency has imposed clear deadlines for some 150,000 hurricane survivors to leave hotels, FEMA has failed to offer a clear vision for relocation or long-term recovery, said national leaders from the faith-based disaster response community this week.

While FEMA is working with housing advocates and voluntary agencies in many states in a scramble to help hurricane survivors find affordable housing, survivors are facing what feels a lot like eviction.

"I just think about the chaotic nature under which these people had to leave their homes in the first place," said Kevin King, executive coordinator of Mennonite Disaster Service. "Many of them took a ticket to anywhere. Now they're being told to get out."

FEMA described finding longer-term housing for hurricane survivors as "the agency's highest housing priority." FEMA reported it was working with state and local partners to inform individuals and families about their options and resources, which include FEMA's rental assistance program.

The need is unprecedented, said Acting FEMA Director David Paulison. "There are still too many people living in hotel rooms, and we want to help them get into longer-term homes before the holidays. Across the country, there are readily available, longer-term housing solutions for these victims that can give greater privacy and stability than hotel and motel rooms."

But faith-based disaster responders wish they had more details on exactly what those housing solutions are on a national level. Responders and evacuees alike say they're still wondering what comes next - and they're looking for more leadership from federal decision-makers.

"Part of what makes this worse is that decisions haven't been made about what's going to happen in the Gulf area about reconstruction," said John Robinson, who coordinates Presbyterian Disaster Assistance teams on a national level. "Are the levees going to be rebuilt? Are people going to stay out six months while the repairs are done in order to make it safe to go back? Or are we talking about having to recreate a new Ninth Ward? And what will be the regulations in coastal Mississippi?"

Until such questions are answered, evacuees can't make decisions about their lives, said Robinson - and responders can't help them make long-term plans.

Who's responsible for a national vision? Robinson believes FEMA is. "FEMA made that decision to put people in hotel space in the first place. But now it's time to take a long look at what the arc of this recovery will look like - even if that decision includes extending the deadline. Between now and January, we have to come up with a solution of how to rebuild. That's really a FEMA call."

King and others acknowledged that FEMA must end subsidized hotel rooms sometime. "There is a part of me that says there's only so long that FEMA can be doing this," said King. Hotel rooms have cost FEMA $274 million since Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29.

Most people staying in hotels are in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi. Evacuees in hotels in Louisiana and Mississippi have until Jan. 7 to vacate hotel rooms. Some 9,000 families remain in hotel rooms in Louisiana, with another 2,500 housed in hotels in Mississippi. In Texas, some 20,000 hotel rooms now house about 51,000 evacuees from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Hurricane survivors in most states must leave by Jan. 7 but at least 3,500 families live in hotel room in states that have a Dec. 15 deadline. FEMA officials said they planned to deliver notices about the action directly to hotel dwellers this week.

After the Dec. 15 or Jan. 7 deadlines, hurricane evacuees who aren't ready to leave hotels will have to pay the costs themselves - either with FEMA rental housing aid or from their own funds.

Responders said hurricane survivors without a clear vision regarding their future risk being further traumatized when they move from hotel rooms into longer-term housing. And in some cases, survivors who have tried to re-establish normal lives, particularly for children, will rip up fragile roots again.

At this point, in some ways, the more you tried to normalize your life - the more you stand to lose, said Roy Winter, executive director of the Brethren Service Center and Emergency Response. "Even the second and third week on, there were people who found jobs and got their kids in school. Then the shelters closed and they moved into hotels. Some of these folks are moving for the third and fourth time. How many new schools is that for a child? This will compound the effects of trauma and increase the stress level for families."

Winter and others questioned whether enough affordable housing units are available - and whether plans were in the works to build them. Many times during past smaller disasters, the faith-based disaster response community has been able to address a lack of affordable housing by building new homes for survivors, repairing damaged homes, or providing rental assistance. To some extent, that's happening in Katrina's aftermath - but this disaster is so large that some national policy must address this issue, said response leaders.

"Affordable housing was a critical issue in the south before the hurricanes ever hit," said King. "You know, there are no easy solutions. But imagine if we put as much money and resources toward figuring this out as we're putting toward the war in Iraq."

Now more people will be competing for fewer homes, said King. "It's just hard to believe. This is another heightened sense of angst. Wouldn't it make sense to do more of a scale-down?"

In New Orleans, housing is unquestionably the number-one problem, said Alan Coe, the United Church of Christ's minister for disaster recovery for that city. "The city wants to come back," he said. "Yet there's no place to live. The greatest need is housing - and that's going to take a long time."

What's more, given the acute housing shortage, it's difficult to house - even temporarily - the lifeblood of faith-based disaster response: trained volunteers. "Housing is so limited. It is going to take awhile for the long-term recovery effort to take place," said Coe. "The people down there working are often living in tents, or off-site, or self-contained in a motor home."

There are localized efforts making a dent in what seems to be a crushing challenge. Baton Rouge-based churches, business and non-profits are trying to transform blighted urban areas into rising communities for Hurricane Katrina survivors. And, in Mississippi, to combat the shortage of volunteer housing, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has set up "Volunteer Villages" of tents along the Gulf Coast that can accommodate hundreds of volunteers.

But responders acknowledge that even the most successful models address only a tiny portion of the housing shortage. Without some dramatic policy changes regarding affordable housing, they acknowledged, the problem is just going to grow - potentially in the most life-shattering ways.

In Florida, hurricane survivors face an unfortunate convergence of housing issues. Shelters housing people from this season's Hurricane Wilma are closing down even as Katrina evacuees face their hotel deadline. And hundreds of people in that state have lived in FEMA "trailer cities" since the 2004 hurricanes. Some voluntary groups in Florida say at least 60 percent of the phone calls they field are about housing.

While faith-based response leaders bewailed the lack of vision at the national level, they also acknowledged they wouldn't want to have to make these decisions. If problems seem insurmountable, people need to keep in mind that the country has never dealt with a disaster of this size, said Robinson. "Where people were evacuated was not their choice. And the disaster organizations - particularly the federal government - were never designed to deal with this."

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