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Thursday, November 19, 2009

HURRICANE IKE AFTERMATH

Ike victims say they feel pressure to leave trailers.

By HARVEY RICE
Copyright 2009
Houston Chronicle
Nov. 17, 2009


GALVESTON — Alida and Tom Duggan are fighting contractors, their insurance company and the bank in a struggle to rebuild their home in Bayou Vista, destroyed by Hurricane Ike.

“Our life has been a nightmare in hell the last year,” Alida Duggan said.

The trailer in Galveston furnished by the Federal Emergency Management Agency was one of the few strokes of luck for the Duggans. Now they are in danger of losing it as FEMA winds down its temporary housing program.

Residents at FEMA trailer sites in Galveston and High Island say caseworkers are pressuring them — sometimes aggressively — to move out of the trailers and into apartments even though the temporary housing program doesn't end until March 12.

A nonprofit group working with Ike victims says FEMA caseworkers are failing to advise trailer residents of all the available assistance, and another says FEMA pressured a disabled couple to move.

Residents feel they are being treated like deadbeats, said Yvonne VanZandt, who lives with her husband, Mike, in FEMA's High Island trailer park.

“We're not beach bums. We're gainfully employed,” she said. “They act like we're living the American dream up here.”

More than 3,700 Ike victims were in FEMA trailers at the height of the temporary housing program in Ike-ravaged Texas counties. That number has since dwindled to about 1,300 households.

In Galveston County, 472 FEMA trailers remain: 33 in commercial trailer parks, 388 in front of private homes and 51 in the two FEMA sites in Galveston and High Island.

Five FEMA trailer residents interviewed by the Houston Chronicle complained that FEMA caseworkers threatened to expel them from their trailers if they failed to accept the first apartment that became available. All five are hoping to rebuild their homes and are reluctant to sign a lease that they might have to break. The Duggans are making mortgage payments on their destroyed house and want to avoid the financial strain of adding rent payments.

Clark Stevens, spokesman at FEMA's Washington office, did not directly address the question of whether FEMA caseworkers were pressuring trailer residents, saying only that caseworkers were obligated to inform residents about all available assistance programs.

Dian Groh, a case manager for Boat People SOS, said she intervened to keep FEMA from forcing out a disabled couple in San Leon. FEMA wanted the couple, both unable to walk without assistance, out of their FEMA trailer before an access ramp could be installed in their repaired manufactured home, she said.

“Their goal was to get them out and get them out fast,” Groh said about FEMA.

‘This is … very frightening'
Some FEMA caseworkers — but not all of them — are polite and sympathetic, the trailer residents say.

John and Rebecca Sealy, who live in FEMA's High Island trailer community, have dubbed one case worker the “Jersey Devil” because of her aggressive attitude.

“She had to be the most rude, crude, unsociable human being I have ever talked to on the phone,” said Yvonne VanZandt, the Sealys' neighbor, about one caseworker.

VanZandt said she and her husband are being badgered by caseworkers even though they have signed a contract with a builder and could have their home rebuilt by the trailer program's March 12 deadline. She said caseworkers told her they would photograph her property to see if work was being done.

Stevens, the FEMA spokesman, said, “Any inappropriate behavior by caseworkers is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.” He said FEMA caseworkers work closely with each resident to help them develop a long-term housing plan tailored to their situation.

But FEMA caseworkers are not telling trailer residents about all the help available because they are not working closely enough with FEMA-funded nonprofit agencies that are also advising hurricane victims, said Joe Higgs, Gulf Coast Interfaith organizer.

“This is getting very frightening to people who are already traumatized,” Higgs said.

FEMA spokeswoman Patricia Brach said that five “letters of revocation” asking tenants to leave have been sent so far. Tenants have 60 days to correct the problem and can appeal their expulsion.

Extensions unlikely
After Hurricane Katrina, the 18-month temporary housing program was extended three times in Louisiana at the request of state and local governments, but that is unlikely to happen in Texas. Galveston County and Galveston city officials say they won't request an extension because they want the trailers out before the next hurricane season begins June 1.

Kemah, which has about a half dozen FEMA trailers on private property, wants them out of the city by the end of the year, City Administrator R.J. Kerber Jr. said. FEMA had to get permission from local governments to put trailers in the flood plain, and Kemah set the Dec. 31 deadline when it gave permission, Kerber said.

harvey.rice@chron.com