Trailers, Vital After Storm, Now Pose Risks

PORT SULPHUR, La., March 11 In its rush to provide shelter for victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has created a pressing new Gulf Coast hazard: nearly 90,000 lightweight trailers in an area prone to flooding, tornadoes and, of course, hurricanes.

The risks of living along the coast inside what amounts to little more than an aluminum box are already obvious to Mitchell and Marie Bartholomew, whose travel trailer here in Port Sulphur, about 40 miles southeast of New Orleans, rocked so violently in a recent routine storm that they abandoned it for a hotel.

"It rattles, it rolls," said Mr. Bartholomew, 62, a retired boat captain, whose trailer sits between the Mississippi River and the slab where his home once stood. "It is like telling you to get out."

Government officials along the Gulf Coast and in Washington agree that the temporary housing, while better than a tent or emergency shelter, is far from ideal.

"They're campers," Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi told a Senate committee this month. "They're not designed to be used as housing for a family for months, much less years. The trailers don't provide even the most basic protection from high winds or severe thunderstorms, much less tornadoes or hurricanes."

With hurricane season less than three months away, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in an interview that he too was worried about the situation. Not only are the trailers lightweight, they are often placed next to partly reconstructed homes and debris that can turn into dangerous projectiles when the wind picks up, Mr. Chertoff said.

Since the travel trailers used by the Bartholomews and others are intended to be portable, they are mounted on wheels so they can be pulled by large pickup trucks until, on reaching their destination, they are jacked up and mounted on concrete blocks. Designed initially for recreational use, the units 35 feet long, 8 eight feet wide and weighing about 6,000 pounds are much smaller, lighter and less expensive than so-called mobile or manufactured homes, which are typically emplaced permanently.

More than 87,100 families in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are living in the FEMA trailers, while only some 2,300 are in the sturdier mobile homes.

FEMA ordered far more travel trailers than mobile homes after the hurricane because the trailers could be towed to a homeowner's property and quickly dropped into place. Being portable, they are not generally covered by building codes and not explicitly banned in flood zones.

For further security along the windy Gulf Coast, FEMA secured the trailers to the ground with steel straps that connect to four corner anchors, although many homeowners have installed their own trailers, in some cases without anchoring them at all.

The added security for the FEMA trailers means that while they may vibrate or rock in the wind, they should not be vulnerable to tipping over until winds exceed 75 miles per hour or so, said Mark C. Smith, a spokesman for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. That speed is typical during intense tropical storms, extremely severe thunderstorms and all hurricanes. (FEMA agrees that 75 m.p.h. should be the threshold for evacuation, although Eddie Abbott of Gulf Stream Coach, a trailer manufacturer, said he thought an anchored trailer would be stable at higher wind speeds.)

By comparison, new coastal homes must be able to withstand winds of up to 110 to 150 m.p.h., depending on location, said Gene Humphrey, an official in the Mississippi fire marshal's office.

The potential hazards with the trailers are obvious across the gulf region. In Myrtle Grove, La., north of Port Sulphur, FEMA trailers sit on the ground below houses that are suspended on stilts to avoid routine floodwaters that would swamp the trailers. Elsewhere, they have been installed just a few feet away from homes that remain ripped wide open from Hurricane Katrina.

Add wind, and the environment can quickly become treacherous. Jimmy Cappiello, a retired oil platform operator who now lives part time in a Port Sulphur trailer, saw sheet metal, trash, wood planks and even the carport from a nearby house flying during a recent storm. He waited it out in his pickup, which he felt was more solid than the trailer.

"I ain't taking no chances," Mr. Cappiello said. "I don't feel safe in it."

In early February, the New Orleans police reported that at least one FEMA trailer was ripped from its anchors when a tornado passed through. And last July, in Pensacola, Fla., a number of trailers installed after a 2004 hurricane were damaged or flipped when Hurricane Dennis hit.

Mr. Humphrey, from the Mississippi fire marshal's office, said he realized that many families wanted a trailer next to their damaged houses. But FEMA, he said, made a mistake in installing the lightweight trailers, instead of the heavier mobile homes, in this high-wind zone on the coast.

"This is pretty serious," he said. "It never should have happened."

With so many trailers and damaged homes along the gulf, and with some levees weakened, local officials will most likely call for coastal evacuations more frequently this year, said Mr. Smith, the Louisiana official. "The key," he said, "is going to be trying to figure out how to word it so people don't get a false sense of security, but people don't panic, either."

Mr. Chertoff said he had already spoken with officials at FEMA and the Defense Department to make sure that federal agencies are ready if needed to help in evacuations.

"We are going to say, 'We want to see the plan, and we want to see what the capabilities are,' " Mr. Chertoff said. " 'And if you don't have the capabilities, we need to know that, because we are going to make sure we have those capabilities in place.' "

In recent weeks, some coastal cities, including Biloxi and Ocean City, Miss., have decided that when severe storms approach, they will open temporary shelters where people living in travel trailers or damaged homes can wait out the bad weather.

"We have to be on our toes sooner," said Ashley Roth, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. "The trailers are just not safe to stay in, in the event of severe weather."

Some trailer residents along the coast in Mississippi and Louisiana said they would not be reluctant to head for more solid shelter. "They won't have to tell me we will be moving out," said Daisy Lightell, 57, of Happy Jack, La., north of Port Sulphur, who lives in a FEMA trailer with her husband. "Otherwise, we could end up in 'The Wizard of Oz.' "

Above all, officials want to discourage residents from trying to evacuate with their trailer in tow, a circumstance that could create an even worse hazard.

"I imagine there are going to be some people who consider it," said Jesse St. Amant, emergency preparedness director for Plaquemines Parish, La. "But I hope they think better of it. Trying to haul a travel trailer during an evacuation would be cumbersome and dangerous."