Sun, Jun 08, 2008 - Page 13 News List

‘Makes you want to drink’

As the US government closes the trailer parks it built to house Hurricane Katrina refugees, those residents most ill-equipped for real-world survival cling with surprising tenacity to the place they have come to think of as home

By Shaila Dewan  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BAKER, LOUISIANA

Judith Brun talks with Hilton, her son George, and Leander. Brun, a Catholic nun, is helping people like Hilton who are at risk of becoming homeless after their government aid expires.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Theresa August spent the official closing day of the Renaissance Village trailer park singing, muttering to herself and dancing on a picnic table. Finally, wearing an infant’s flowered onesie on her head like a kerchief, she began to pack up.

August, 39, giggled on the steps of her overflowing trailer last Saturday as Sister Judith Brun asked when she might be able to leave the trailer park that, at its peak, housed almost 600 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Sunday? No response. Monday? A smile.

But by Monday, Brun, a nun who has been an almost constant presence during the park’s waning weeks, had learned that August’s destination was not, as the situation seemed to demand, a placement supervised by a professional caregiver, but an apartment in New Orleans found by a friend. Because it was clear to Brun that August was not capable of riding a bus and moving into the apartment on her own, as the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had planned, Brun decided to postpone the trip a day until she herself could take August, who has been known to wander off.

The closing of Renaissance Village, near Baton Rouge, and the other remaining FEMA parks represents the final chapter in one of the largest and most tumultuous efforts by the US federal government to provide emergency housing to a displaced population. Over the course of two years and nine months, FEMA put up 9,000 families in trailer parks scattered around the Gulf area, where residents endured cramped, inadequate and often poisonous conditions.

Many Louisiana residents shared a similar reaction to the announcement that the parks would close at the end of May: It’s about time. After all, more than 800 families had passed through Renaissance Village’s gates and managed to move on with their lives in their own homes. Why not the rest?

As residents like August make clear, that question has no simple answer. Those remaining are the hardest to help, posing the toughest test of the oft-repeated promise that the recovery from Hurricane Katrina would at least offer the opportunity to rectify the social ills the storm exposed.

Reason holds little sway over the residents of this microcosm. Some of those most in need have proved to be, out of pride or paranoia, the least likely to accept help. Those who under normal circumstances have little leverage have become the most demanding holdouts. Those ill-equipped for real-world survival cling with surprising tenacity to the place they have come to think of as home.

As the last day came and went, many of those left in the park (38 trailers full, by FEMA’s count) were exemplars of New Orleans’ most persistent problems before the storm: old, unhealthy, delusional, mentally challenged, addicted, illiterate, senile. They have bad credit, criminal records, exasperated relatives. They are often unreliable narrators of their own stories.

Though the government has failed these residents in many ways and for many years, in the final weeks ample assistance has been available — from gas money and food vouchers to utility deposits and hotel rooms, even for those technically ineligible for FEMA assistance. Catholic Charities has helped with furniture and deposits; the Capitol Area Alliance for the Homeless has offered rent subsidies for those who are ineligible. Brun has delivered groceries and arranged rides, sympathized and scolded, strategically dispensed small wads of cash to plug the gaps in the system.

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