By Thomas Frank, USA TODAY
Sometimes when Veronica Joseph wakes up in the middle of the night,
she slips outside this city's main emergency shelter, where she's been
living for three weeks. She sits on a plastic chair and enjoys a
cigarette and the solitude.
After sleeping on a cot, sharing communal bathrooms and being fed
cafeteria-style meals with up to 1,700 people, Joseph is aching for
the privacy of home. But it's not going to be easy to find one.
Her former $5.15-an-hour job picking broken breadsticks off a New
Orleans bakery assembly line yielded no savings. Fliers on the shelter
walls beckon the homeless here to a house in Montana, a church in
Oklahoma, an apartment in Brooklyn. But there's nothing available in
"We just want to get back to living as man and woman," says Joseph,
47, who lived with her boyfriend in a $300-a-month New Orleans house
that Hurricane Katrina destroyed. "But I don't see a way out yet."
Nearly 100,000 evacuees remain in shelters a month after Katrina
demolished communities across the Gulf region, the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) says, down from a peak of 250,000. The
shelter residents taken together would form Louisiana's sixth-largest
city and are the most visible symbol of Katrina's diaspora.
Evacuees live in more than 1,000 shelters spread across 26 states and,
for all the variety of their locales and circumstances, they mostly do
one thing: wait.
Some are waiting for their New Orleans neighborhoods to reopen so they
can return to homes that were damaged but not destroyed.
Some are waiting to see their homes for the first time to determine
whether they can be repaired or rebuilt.
Some are waiting for money -- from the federal government or from a new
employer -- so they can afford a new home, possibly in a new state.
And some are so overwhelmed they can't fathom what to do.
"I am just waiting right now," says Lou Cooper, 78, slouching on a cot
as her husband, Hillary, sleeps nearby, next to his wheelchair. The
Coopers and two teen grandchildren moved to the shelter after their
Jefferson Parish home was destroyed and a daughter went to Shreveport
for her nursing job.
When do they hope to leave? "I have no idea," she says.
Seeking sites for trailers
The federal government is trying to move all evacuees from shelters to
temporary housing by Oct. 15, a goal set by President Bush. The core
of FEMA's effort is a plan to park 125,000 trailers and mobile homes
in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to house evacuees until they
find permanent residences.
But federal inspectors are struggling to find sites with the
infrastructure -- water, sewers and electricity -- to accommodate
The FEMA teams fanning out across Louisiana are being greeted warily
in some communities.
Tangipahoa Parish, north of New Orleans, adopted an emergency
ordinance limiting the density of mobile-home parks after FEMA began
inspecting local sites. Neighboring Livingston Parish is being
cautious in approving trailers because its services "just cannot
sustain what FEMA is trying to do," parish president Mike Grimmer
So far, only 99 trailers are occupied in Louisiana, and about 2,000
more are being prepared in the state. An additional 2,325 trailers are
occupied in Mississippi and Alabama.
The pace has so alarmed Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco that last week
she urged FEMA to move all shelter residents immediately into hotel
rooms for 90 days.
Ron Sherman, head of FEMA's housing effort for evacuees, said Monday
that Oct. 15 is "a challenging goal."
FEMA last week offered evacuees $786 a month for three months to pay
for any temporary housing, including hotels. Sherman said the payments
would "give people other options ... so that trailers don't become the
focus of their recovery."
State facilities planning director Jerry Jones doubts the Oct. 15 goal
will be met. But he says temporary housing is vital to getting
evacuees out of shelters and to getting the hundreds of thousands of
people who left Louisiana back to the state, which would help restore
the Louisiana economy.
"We want all those other states to know those are our people and we
want them back," Jones says.
New housing is necessary because Louisiana faced a severe housing
shortage even before Katrina destroyed an estimated 275,000 homes,
says state policy and planning director Kim Hunter Reed.
Wayne Scardino found that out a week after Katrina washed away his
home in heavily damaged St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans, and
he took a bus to the Baton Rouge shelter, in a modern arena and
exhibit hall in the center of downtown.
For three days, Scardino sat at one of the free telephones available
inside the Baton Rouge shelter, calling apartment complexes in the
region. He even visited a few but didn't bother walking past the "no
'You've got to go out of state'
"No apartments, no hotel rooms nowhere. Everything's filled," says
Scardino, 45, who ran a lawn-service business. "You've got to go out
of state to get anything."
And that's what he hopes to do. Scardino recently called a phone
number he found on a flier in the shelter advertising apartments in
Tennessee. The bus to pick him up, he says, will come to the shelter
While he waits, Scardino is filling out a FEMA application for money
through a program that helps replace uninsured homes in disaster
areas. He says his house was worth $125,000.
He plans to seek a low-interest loan from the Small Business
Administration, which lends businesses money to buy capital items. He
says he's serious about using the money to rebuild his life - but not
in his old community.
"There won't be a St. Bernard Parish for 10 years," Scardino
says. "I'll go anywhere."
Leon Frederick doesn't find such mobility as easy. He's been in the
Baton Rouge shelter with his common-law wife and their three young
daughters since a week after Katrina, when they could no longer afford
a hotel in Jackson, Miss.
"I would like to move somewhere temporarily for a job and for school
for the kids," says Frederick, 48, who worked as a security guard. His
twin 4-year-old daughters had attended all-day Head Start outside New
Orleans, but Frederick couldn't find anything similar in Baton Rouge --
except an unaccredited nursery program at the shelter that runs from 9
a.m. to noon.
Frederick's talk about moving to Texas ended when his partner, Chalana
Bland, declared herself "dead set on going back" to their townhouse
east of New Orleans. "She wants to go home -- into her own house, where
she has her own things," Frederick says.
Instead of looking for new housing, Frederick drives his customized
van 85 miles back to Harvey to check their rented duplex. The roof was
sheared off, the first floor flooded, the carpet is mildewed, and
furniture and appliances are ruined.
"We can't do anything till FEMA looks at it," Frederick says,
referring to an inspection to verify and calculate housing
losses. Frederick expects to be home in a month, but even that won't
end his family's problems.
"When we come back, there's really nothing to come back to -- no jobs,
no business," he says. "We'll just have to sit there and wait."
LaToya Dennis and Calvin Jacob are waiting, too -- for help from the
government, the Red Cross and anyone who can get them out of the
The couple, whose New Orleans home was destroyed, has neither the
desire to return to a city they call violent nor the money to
relocate. Jacob's $8.25-an-hour warehouse job was their only
income. They don't have a car. And they don't like the housing
options that have come their way.
"We really don't have anywhere to go," says Dennis, 20, who's at the
Baton Rouge shelter with Jacob and their daughter Sanai, born in early
Church leaders who flew to Baton Rouge from Colorado and California
tempted Jacob and Dennis with offers of shelter in those states, but
the couple saw no reason to move to a place where they know no one.
Cousins and aunts in Dallas offered to put them up, but the couple
declined, not wanting to impose. And when they heard about trailers
being set up, the notion of living in a portable dwelling with little
or no foundation conjured nightmares.
'We could do better'
"It's inappropriate because if we have another storm, where are we
going to go?" Dennis says. "I'm not being ungrateful, but I feel we
could do better."
Jacob, 22, says he's tried to get jobs recently but has been turned
away from construction sites that told him they had enough workers. He
says many jobs involve nighttime hours that he can't work because of
the shelter's 10 p.m. curfew. The Red Cross, which runs the Baton
Rouge shelter, says residents can get in after curfew if they've been
working. "We just want some housing and to get on with our lives,"
Jacob says. They'll stay at the shelter, he says, "until we get the
assistance we need to get housing."
Although Jacob and Dennis hate the shelter -- they call it "a prison"
patrolled by National Guard troops toting loaded M-16 combat rifles --
some express no hurry to leave.
"I worked so many years and so long and so hard, it's kind of like a
vacation," says Jessie Merrell, 54, who was a banquet captain at the
Omni Royal Orleans hotel.
His family's house is in New Orleans' 9th Ward, parts of which have
stood underwater for a month. But even that raises more curiosity than
"The news media -- they tell you it's gone, but I don't believe that,"
Merrell says, leaning back in a chair.
Merrell is in the shelter with his wife, their two daughters, in their
20s, and a granddaughter, 2. Merrell plays with her for hours, drives
around Baton Rouge, eats lunch and wonders when he'll be able to get
into New Orleans to see the house where he's lived for 30 years. If
it's gone, the family will decide whether to rebuild or relocate.
"I've got people in Houston," Merrell says, suggesting they might move
there. But minutes later, the New Orleans native says, "I don't
believe I could actually get adjusted to living anywhere else."
He doesn't have to make up his mind now. "Right now," Merrell says,
"I'm just waiting to see what happened."
Copyright 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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