Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Independent on Sunday: Trailer Trashed

The broader picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Robert King: opens in a new window

It is a combination of two particularly American traditions: trailer parks and ghost towns. But the approximately 11,000 mobile homes sitting empty at Hope Municipal Airport in Arkansas are actually a very visible reminder of two other, more modern phenomena: the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina and, more specifically, the problems that the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) had trying to deal with its aftermath.

Immediately after Katrina hit, Fema ordered more than 100,000 such trailers for families left homeless by flood waters. However, Fema's regulations state that the mobile homes it provides can't be placed in a "flood way or high coastal hazard area" - ie, a floodplain - meaning many couldn't be used in the areas that most needed them. (Fema couldn't install more sturdy pre-fab homes either, as it isn't allowed to pay for anything classed as "permanent" housing.)

But spending over $431m on these trailers wasn't a complete waste, it seems. The nearby town of Hope, whose population of 10,616 is just a little fewer than that of the trailers, has seen a new industry spring upon its doorstep. As well as employing security guards and maintenance staff for the trailers themselves, Fema also had to spend $6m laying a bed of gravel on the airfield to stop the trailers sinking into the mud. And, at least the agency has plenty of mobile homes ready should the unthinkable happen again during this year's hurricane season.