RALEIGH, N.C. -- Life will be different during the holidays this year for an estimated 2,000 North Carolina families left homeless by Hurricane Floyd and now living temporarily in a travel trailer or mobile home.
Many have lost more than their houses. They've lost their neighborhoods and neighbors, their children's schools, their jobs and the photographs, artifacts and private treasures that made their former house home. But after days or weeks in the close company of strangers in a shelter, they now have a clean, warm and private place in which to celebrate the season and cook for themselves rather than eat the institutional fare served in the shelters.
Following the initial disaster response to restore public safety, housing is always the first priority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA and the state offer displaced persons immediate grants for minimal repair to make a home livable, short-term help with hotel bills and rent, mortgage assistance and low-interest loans for major repairs from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
If these programs can't fill the need, then come mobile homes and travel trailers, the last recourse in a thorough search for suitable housing. Only after the local market is scoured and a shortage of rental housing is verified do officials turn to the use of trailers. They are available only to residents of disaster-declared counties whose homes were destroyed, suffered major damage or were otherwise rendered uninhabitable.
The temporary housing program was first authorized in 1969. Only three years later, Hurricane Agnes hammered five states and created a record need for 20,000 units to house the homeless. No storm since has triggered a greater need, but more than 5,000 units were used for Hurricane Andrew and hundreds were assigned in Georgia and Florida after Tropical Storm Alberto and in Kentucky following the Great Flood of 1997.
In North Carolina there are five group sites for travel trailers and five for mobile homes housing families left homeless by Floyd. Most families - more than 1,500 - are in travel trailers. Mobile homes generally are assigned to the elderly, the handicapped and to large families. Additional requests for temporary housing are pending and the number of families is expected to reach 2,000 by the end of the month. Some travel trailers are placed in the yards of private homes to provide housing while the owners rebuild.
The trailer and mobile home program is administered by the state, which buys the units with money provided by FEMA. To date North Carolina has purchased some 1,900 travel trailers and 560 mobile homes at a cost for site preparation and the units approaching $50 million. Under an agreement with FEMA the state is responsible for final disposition of the units when they are no longer needed. They cost the state between $9,500 and $20,000 new.
There are two sites at the Fountain Industrial Park in Rocky Mount and others at Keehlin and Hilltop in Edgecombe County; Caswell Center in Lenoir County; County Home, Lewis, Grifton Park and Wylie Price in Pitt County and the North Carolina Department of Transportation property in Wayne County.
Those who live in the trailers are grateful for a place of their own after weeks of the noise, crowding and lack of privacy in the shelters. But both residents and officials acknowledge that the confined space in the trailers does not make them a satisfactory solution to the long-term housing needs of the tenants.
Temporary housing in trailers is just that - temporary. The families will be expected to find permanent shelter and move out within 18 months. But for now they have a place to call their own and no doubt a holiday season they will remember always.