Living in a Box

Los Angeles Times
December 3, 2005
By Alex Tizon

DEL RIO, Texas – Once he lived in a house; now he lives in a box. The box sits alongside other boxes — all gray aluminum, all the same size, all facing the same direction — like rows of dominos in the desert.The box that Jose Luis Porras Jr. refers to is a mobile home. He’s glad to have a roof over his head, “but check it out,” he says. “Is there any other word to call it?”

The home is in a village of 152 trailers, divided into two clusters on the outskirts of this border town west of San Antonio. The Federal Emergency Management Agency assembled the village in the fall of 1998 to house the hundreds of evacuees, like Porras, whose houses were destroyed by a tropical storm that drenched this normally arid corner of Texas. The village was meant to be temporary.

Seven years later, the village remains, with no plans to dismantle it. And, most disheartening for Porras, he and his family remain, along with a dozen other evacuee families who have no means of getting out. Porras, 41, has been following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and news of the FEMA trailer villages being built for Gulf Coast evacuees. His counsel in one sentence: Beware the word “temporary.”

*

Del Rio, a city of 35,000, sits at the juncture of south and west Texas, a dot on a rolling plain of scrub and cacti. The main reason people settled here is the geographic phenomenon of San Felipe Creek — the outlet of an underground river that every day pours forth 90 million gallons of crystal-clear water. Del Rio, which means “of the river,” refers to this ribbon of water wending through town.

On the day Tropical Storm Charley swept through — Aug. 23, 1998 — more than 18 inches of rain fell. The creek raged over its banks and flooded the city’s poorest neighborhood, killing at least nine people (several remain missing) and destroying 600 homes.

“Only the porch was left,” Porras recalls of the house where he was born and raised.

The Porrases and others were moved into a city shelter as FEMA went to work. It took two months to build the mobile-home village, which, like other FEMA compounds, was designed purely for function: unadorned structures arranged on a flat, treeless, colorless expanse.

The village, which sat off the main highway in a remote field behind an equipment rental company, was easy to miss. No signs pointed the way, and no formal entrances or exits marked the boundaries.

The Porras family — Jose; his wife, Angie; and their children, Priscilla and Joe — were assigned to Lot 39 in the cluster closest to town. Their mobile home was 14 feet wide, 56 feet long and had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, central air and heat. Compared with the shelter, it was heaven.

For many evacuees, the mobile homes were in some ways a step up from their houses — some little more than adobe shacks. The trailers were carpeted and came with refrigerators and ovens. Everything smelled new. The mattresses were still wrapped in factory plastic. Moving in, at least on that first day, represented a new start. But as the years passed, the Porrases’ gratitude wore away.

They missed their family home. It was small, but it had a yard with pecan trees and sweet grass and secret places where kids could hide and play. Everything had a history. The kitchen had a smell of years of family feasts. Even the messiness had character. That house, Porras says, was a real home.

The Porrases couldn’t get themselves to feel the same about their mobile home. Once the newness wore off, something else set in: The village began to take on the look of a rural slum, with broken windows, cannibalized cars in driveways and mangy dogs tied to dilapidated porches. A patina of silt covered the encampment.

Most of the evacuee families moved on, as the government intended, some taking their mobile homes after buying them from FEMA for a pittance. The government turned the remaining homes into low-income housing.

On a recent afternoon, Porras — a compact, graying man with bloodshot eyes — is outside working on his ’94 Camaro. His right hand fiddles with something under the hood, his left clutches his 5-year-old daughter, Jacinda, who has known no other home than the one her father constantly refers to as “this box.” He hates living there, he says. It is no place to raise children.

Priscilla and Joe are now 18 and 13. The couple had Jacinda and Kimberly, 8 months, after moving into the village.

“Why we still here?” he says. “No place to go.”

Del Rio, the seat of Val Verde County, is one of the poorest places in the Lone Star State, with about a quarter of its residents living below the poverty level. Sheep and goat ranching and light manufacturing related to nearby Laughlin Air Force Base generate some jobs, but unemployment runs high and the $12,096 per-capita income is far below the state average.

Porras is an unemployed plumber who does odd jobs. Angie, 32, takes care of an elderly woman. Together they make just enough to get by. They pay $100 to rent the lot and about $200 for utilities every month. They haven’t found any place nearly as cheap. FEMA eventually sold them the mobile home for $1, but they have nowhere to put it.

They had sold the family’s land — now part of a designated flood zone — to FEMA for $12,000 and spent most of the money on two cars and furnishings for their trailer. Now, just moving the mobile home would cost $2,000. “Might as well be $2 million,” Porras says. “Same thing.”

The FEMA plan was to keep the village for 18 months, during which the evacuees would look for permanent housing. But after that period, FEMA and city housing officials found that the remaining evacuees still had no options.

One housing official in Austin put it this way: “Those people had nothing before the flood, nothing after the flood and nothing now.” Closing the village would mean sending the evacuees back to shelters, or worse, to the streets.

The Del Rio Housing Authority took over the village, and the grizzled administrator of the agency, Alfredo Delgado, whose own extended family lost homes in the flood, says the village is here to stay. It is an imperfect solution, he acknowledges. “People have to live somewhere.”

*

About 600 miles east of Del Rio, on the northern outskirts of Baton Rouge, La., FEMA workers are toiling feverishly to finish the third and fourth of their massive post-Katrina trailer villages. One with 573 trailers in Baker opened in early October and filled up within weeks. Another opened Nov. 4 near the Baton Rouge airport. FEMA plans to open two other villages near the airport and 15 throughout Louisiana by the end of the year. Seven villages are under construction in Mississippi, and trailers by the hundreds have been streaming daily into East Texas.

The federal government set aside about $2 billion for 125,000 trailers and mobile homes to house the neediest of those displaced by Katrina.

Negotiating sites for the villages — large vacant tracts next to transportation lines and employment centers and, most important, amenable neighbors — has been the hardest part.

The fear of instant, and perhaps permanent, slums is the main reason why civic leaders in Louisiana parishes such as Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, Iberia and Tangipahoa have turned away FEMA attempts to develop village sites.

At the newest of the post-Katrina villages, a fenced compound of 198 trailers in Baton Rouge, federal workers say they will do everything possible to help evacuees resettle into houses and apartments.

In addition to providing free meals, medical services and job counseling at the village, FEMA will also arrange daily transportation to and from downtown Baton Rouge, and regular service to New Orleans. But the government can only do so much, says FEMA spokesman Bill Lehman, who is at the village, called Airport Site #3, on opening day. Much of what will happen to evacuees, he says, will depend on them

The official arrangement, as in the past, is that residents have 18 months to make a transition into permanent housing. After that period, theoretically, the trailers will be emptied and the villages dismantled. But if some evacuees still have nowhere to go after the allotted period, would the government extend the life of the village, possibly making it permanent, as in Del Rio?

“I’m not going to touch that one,” Lehman says. Down the road from Lehman’s tent office, evacuee Donald Smith turns up his radio in Trailer E-9, filling his new home with the sound of rhythm and blues. Smith, 47, a former auto mechanic in New Orleans, had spent 10 weeks in shelters. He was among the last of the Gulf Coast’s shelter occupants — once numbering 270,000 — to be placed in temporary housing.

On this day, he is beyond delighted. “My trailer,” he says, touring it for the first time. “Mine. Donald Smith’s.”

He has it all to himself. It takes an hour to unpack his belongings — four boxes of donated clothes, a Bible, a radio and two cartons of frozen Starbucks coffeecake. There is also his cane. Born with bum hips and knees, Smith’s lower body is held together by metal parts. One artificial knee constantly falls out of joint. Circling outside his trailer, he nods hello to other evacuees passing by. It feels a bit like the first day of school — meeting new people and recognizing familiar ones. One man he met in a shelter passes by and spots Smith.

“You here, too?” the man asks.

“Yeah, I’m here for a while,” Smith says.

“There goes the neighborhood!” the man says.

Smith laughs, and then climbs the four steps into his trailer. Like the Porras family seven years earlier, Smith is too exhausted to be anything but grateful for his new home — even if it’s supposed to be temporary. Today, it doesn’t matter. The trailer represents a new beginning. Smith closes the door firmly behind him and surveys the living room. He feels the bounce of his mattress. Tonight will be his first night alone, and the first on a bed, since the storm chased him away from his life. It could also be, as Jose Luis Porras Jr. might tell him, the first night of a longer stay than he can imagine.