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Last modified: Monday, December 5, 2005

FEMA lacks trailers, communication for evacuees

Dec. 5, 2005

Diamondhead, Miss. — Linda Sullivan makes use of her small trailer stove by simmering a crab gumbo for her and her husband Johnny Sullivan's dinner. With a lack of available food in the area, most groceries are provided to the trailer residents by Red Cross volunteers. Mrs. Sullivan said she found the crabs herself. Photo by Elisha Sauers

Print-Quality Photo

Editors: Katrina recovery stories and photographs by IU School of Journalism students also are being distirbuted today and are available for one-time use in newspapers and at media Web sites without charge. Photographs for these stories, along with a general file of other pictures,are available at

The students retain their copyright to the stories and photos. Before publication, please e-mail Professor Carol Polsgrove at to express your understanding that the writers and photographers retain their copyright. The writers and photographers would appreciate having clips of their published work, which can be sent to Carol Polsgrove, School of Journalism, Indiana University, Ernie Pyle Hall, Bloomington, IN 47405. All of the stories can be found at


By Elisha Sauers

GULFPORT and DIAMONDHEAD, Miss.— Melvin Barkum is, in one respect, a lucky man. After his Gulfport home was damaged by Katrina, he got a FEMA trailer. But all in his FEMA trailer is not as well as it might be.

After he switched on his trailer's thermostat, he lifted the lid of a storage bench and illuminated a water pipe with a flashlight. Within a moment, the visibly leaking water was pattering to the high-pitched smoke alarm.

"I can't turn the heat on without the alarm going off."

He demonstrated. A piercing shriek filled the trailer.

After living in the trailer parked in his yard for a month, Barkum said FEMA has not been very responsive to his maintenance issues.

"They give us this 800-number here," he said, holding up a flier given to him with the trailer, "but I've had to call several times, just waiting on the other end, to get somebody out here. And when somebody did finally come out here, he needed to get a special part. After all that, it leaked again anyway."

The last thing Barkum needs is more water damage. On the day of the hurricane, Barkum was alone in his house, dodging from one room to the next as the ceiling began to buckle and collapse under the pressure of the seeping rain.

"I used a screwdriver to punch holes in the ceiling," he said, gesturing to some of the punctures in the spots overhead that didn't founder. "I was trying to drain the water out before the whole ceiling caved."

Barkum will do most of the repair work on his home himself.

"I'll probably need the trailer for about a year," he said. "I think FEMA -- they're nice people -- if they would just finish what they're supposed to."

FEMA spokesman Eugene Brezany in Jackson, Miss., said the agency is trying to accommodate everyone's needs. When asked if placing hurricane victims in trailers was a wise solution, Brezany said, "We're not putting people in fruit crates."

"(The trailers) do meet standards," Brezany asserted. "They're a lot more agreeable than living on the streets."

Brezany said the program was "not designed to be long-term."

"We're just a bridge to their future well-being," Brezany said

Though many evacuees were under the impression that they were guaranteed a trailer for 18 months, Brezany said that was a misapprehension.

"The 18 months started on Aug. 29 when the President declared this a national disaster," Brezany said.

FEMA has rounded up some 15,000 trailers from around the country (including Indiana), but still needs 19,000 more. So while the gulf region has a deficit of thousands of trailers, the deadline for the trailer phase puts pressure on FEMA to move people into more substantial housing.

For Kassie Dwyer, an 18-year-old mother of three in Diamondhead, the deadline will only mark a transfer from one trailer to another. The home she shared with her boyfriend for the past two years was decimated by Katrina. They can't afford another home, she said.

"They gotta bulldoze that off my property," she said over the squeaks and squeals of toddlers at her feet. "I'm gonna try and buy a trailer and put it on that property."

In the same FEMA trailer park, Johnny Sullivan has similar plans for him and his wife after the program ends.

"I'm gonna try to get a little place out in the country -- maybe a trailer," he said. "If I could get in a house today, I'd leave right now. I don't like living like this. You got to go outside just to turn around."

But he feels fortunate to have the trailer when so many other evacuees are still waiting.

"There are a lot of people who haven't gotten (trailers) yet, living on the beach," Sullivan said. "And yet there are people with good livable houses, and right in the back of them they got FEMA trailers. I'd like to know how that happens."

Elisha Sauers is a graduate student in journalism from Knoxville, Tenn.