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Saturday, September 17, 2005

After the floods: trailer parks for a million

Jamie Wilson Baker, Louisiana
Saturday September 17, 2005
The Guardian

It is being called the biggest federal housing programme in United States history, a plan to build up to 300,000 temporary homes for nearly a million people flooded out by Hurricane Katrina. All along the Gulf Coast contractors are constructing huge trailer parks. The scale of the enterprise dwarfs both the rebuilding of Chicago after the great fire of 1871 and San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

Planners and officials are worried about the long-term ramifications if people are stuck in temporary accommodation for years. "We have never had to deal with anything like this in US history," said Ruth Steiner, an associate professor at the department of urban and regional planning at Florida University. "They are looking at trying to house more than a million people, so you are basically dealing with trying to build multiple cities."

On the outskirts of Baker, east of Baton Rouge, contractors have less than two weeks to turn 60 acres of prairie into a town for several thousand people. While bulldozers dig drainage ditches, men in fluorescent waistcoats use orange flags to show where 600 trailers will be, along with a network of limestone roads, parking areas and sewage treatment facilities.
The park is one of many. Emergency officials are mapping out new towns made up of as many as 25,000 mobile homes. The plan is to open 30,000 new homes every two weeks. Stores, restaurants and other facilities will come later, but the priority is getting people out of shelters and under their own roofs.

This will increase the pre-Katrina population of Baker, about 13,000, by at least a third. Nobody knows how long the evacuees will stay. "The key is making them comfortable enough for people to live in but not so comfortable that they never want to leave," Prof Steiner said.

Already local shops have been running out of groceries as a result of the influx, but the town is still offering a warm welcome to the evacuees. "We're not looking on the negative side," said Monteal Caron-Margolis, of the town's chamber of commerce. "Basically we are seeing this as an opportunity that we hope will help to breathe new life into our community."

But the towns and the trailer park residents can expect rocky times ahead. Several of the parks built in Florida in the wake of four major hurricanes in the state last year have experienced widespread lawlessness, and New Orleans was home to some of the US's most violent gangs.

"We ain't worried about it," said the town's assistant chief of police, Captain Mike Kanaps. "There has been a bit more shoplifting and minor crime like that, but basically nothing else. We run a pretty tight ship over here. We have a very low tolerance level, we go straight by the rules and we don't have any grey areas, that's why people like living here

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