A New Place to Go after a Disaster ; West Virginia Is Setting Aside Housing for Victims of Local Floods - or National Emergencies

By Patrik Jonsson writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

A New Place to Go after a Disaster ; West Virginia Is Setting Aside Housing for Victims of Local Floods - or National Emergencies


Patrik Jonsson writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The image of sodden, downtrodden New Orleans residents picking up the pieces of their lives from a wrecked Gulf and inhabiting cruise ships and hotels is a black mark on the American zeitgeist.

Survivors of a future national emergency may make a beeline for the West Virginia mountains - to live in ready-made evacuee villages until they can get back on their feet.

Indeed, the Mountain State has approved a landmark plan to buy five plots of land and set it aside to house several hundred people in an emergency. The state is funding four sites while the fifth eight-acre area will be financed by a $600,000 federal grant.

The mobile home communities are intended mainly for West Virginia residents to escape the near-perennial mountain floods that have resulted in six federal disaster declarations in the last five years. The land, however, can also be used for a national emergency such as hurricane Katrina.

Federal officials say it is the nation's first plan to establish permanent housing for people displaced by natural disasters. West Virginia's novel concept comes at a time when America is grappling with how to prepare for the next national population migration - whether it's the coming of a hurricane, an earthquake or a terrorist attack.

"In areas where natural disasters are frequent and fairly predictable, you might have these predesigned, predeveloped locations - ghost towns waiting for occupancy," says Peter Davis, a former FEMA emergency housing manager, and a business professor at the University of Memphis. "It offers an opportunity to test certain kinds of actions that could be used to mitigate adverse consequences of dislocating small- to medium-sized populations."

Local, state, and federal emergency management officials are mulling over how to improve FEMA's strategy of using trailer parks and housing vouchers to help disaster survivors.

Today, FEMA has largely been improvising on the ground as 600,000 households have been uprooted and 40,000 people are still housed in hotel rooms spread mostly across 10 Southern states. Others have found refuge in emergency mobile home communities because of hurricane Katrina.

Having empty and available housing in a more remote location may be an expedient solution, some say.

Permanent trailer parks would cut the expenses of creating roads, digging pipes, and installing wires that now inflate the cost of each temporary trailer to about $140,000. So far, FEMA has invested most of its money in mobile homes, spending $3 billion to order and keep an inventory of 125,000.

"If you look at disaster literature, a pre-made sort of site may provide the opportunity for families and communities to rebuild, to create emotional bonds, to get on with personal recovery, build foundations for something further down the road," says Jim Elliott, a sociologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, La. …

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