Mr. Pitre in FEMA trailer

Wilbur Pitre moved to a FEMA trailer in Erath, LA, after five months without a home following Hurricane Rita
Photo: Shawn Poynter

In two years of documenting the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita along the rural expanse of the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast, I have seen a lot of trailers. Makeshift government-built towns lined out in row after row of eggshell white mobile homes. Small FEMA-issued campers dragged up against gutted frame houses undergoing transformation. And the privately owned “manufactured homes” that were twisted and spat out along the hurricanes’ path.

Brian Pitre after Hurricane Rita

What comes to mind is a buried Jimmy Buffett line: “They’re ugly and square, they don’t belong here. They looked a lot better as beer cans.” But not everyone is at liberty to choose the cold beer, or the shape of their shelter.

Bryan Pitre, five months after Rita destroyed his home in Erath, LA
Photo: Shawn Poynter

Our first video shoot started February 24, 2006, five months to the day after Rita hit the heart of Acadiana. We showed up at the home of Bryan Pitre in Erath, Louisiana, the same day his FEMA trailer did. Before Rita he rebuilt fishing boats and motors in a warehouse on the bayou near his house. He had been sole support for his ill wife and elderly parents. Though 11,000 FEMA trailers were sitting in a lot in Arkansas, the Pitre family had spent most of the fall and winter living under a tree and in a fishing trailer while the agency sorted out its internal priorities.

One of those priorities, it turns out, was keeping quiet once FEMA learned that cancer-causing formaldehyde gas was present in the trailers they were issuing throughout the Gulf.

Later on that first trip we met Karen Keeve in Abbeville. Karen is now the grateful recipient of the first Katrina Cottage in Louisiana. Built with private contributions, by a local nonprofit and Massachusetts volunteers, the home is a beautifully designed A-frame that can withstand winds of 150 mph. When we met, Keeve was on her own, living in a shotgun house that had been flooded in the storm. In the five intervening months, the house never dried out; her carpets were still wet and full of mold, but she was living there because she had no other option. She smiled when she tried to explain living with the stink. Eventually, the house was condemned and razed. She then got a FEMA camper. And though she said the glues made her sick, and on muggy nights she had to bunk at her neighbors’ to escape the fumes, she was nevertheless happy to have the trailer to live in there on site. It gave her the chance to keep an eye on the progress of the volunteers and to pitch in once her own workday ended.

Trula Thornton in her trailer

Trula Thornton and her husband Fredrick moved into a FEMA trailer in Abbeville last year; fumes from the building materials have caused her lung problems.
Photo: Mimi Pickering

Months later our crew met a lay minister from the same area, Trula Thornton, who had lost everything. “Being the ministers, we was the givers,” she said. But that changed with Hurricane Rita, when she was evacuated and ended up living in a stranger’s house with her husband, son, and fifteen others for more than four months. Because she was recovering from a kidney transplant, the living conditions were especially tough. Thornton was relieved when her family at last could move into a full-size FEMA trailer, until she began to suffer respiratory distress from poisonous chemicals in the walls. “We fed the homeless and gave shelter to the ones who didn’t have shelter,” Trula explained. “Now we can’t. We need shelter.”

On our most recent trip, we visited the island of Grand Bayou where many of the Atakapas, Louisiana’s first people, lived until Katrina banished them two years ago. They still had not returned home by end of July. The power company Entergy had finally shown up to restore power, but announced that each household in this fishing village would be charged a monthly hookup fee of $70, in addition to the cost of electricity. In the meantime, a large portion of the community had been relocated to a FEMA trailer park called Diamond in Plaquemines Parish. Inside the chain link fence, Diamond’s most prominent feature is a youth baseball field in the corner of a grid of gravel streets with names like Berra, Clemente, DiMaggio and Mays. The community is comprised of 450 white trailers in neat rows; here live more than 400 children under age 13. Armed guards at the entrances check that each visitor has reason to be inside the compound. For the Atakapas, trailer living is a dramatic contrast from Grand Bayou, where you got to your home by boat and the only guards were alligators.

I made certain assumptions when we began following the stories after the storms. One was that help was on the way. With more than one hundred billion dollars in the federal pipeline, I felt confident that it would not be long before things got better. Turns out there was a lot I did not understand about pipelines.

What I understand now is that we are two years in, and the post-storm emblem that best represents a responsive and benign government turns out to be the white FEMA trailer. And it’s toxic.

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