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As Katrina's homeless wait, trailers sit empty in an Arkansas town

LOS ANGELES -- At Uncle Henry's Smokehouse Bar B Que on Thursday in Hope, Ark., the lunchtime crowd filled every table -- all 10 of them. At City Hall, the phones were ringing off the hook. And out at the airport, a private pilot who had just turned 45 said she did not expect to live long enough to see things get back to normal.

This is all because of the latest example of how federal, state, and local officials have responded to the great trailer conundrum.

Time was, Hope was known primarily as the childhood home of Bill Clinton.

Now, it seems to look like Trailer Town, USA.

Last fall, after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, leaving thousands homeless, officials in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama began calling for trailers to provide temporary shelter. More than 100,000 were requested, and somebody decided it would be a good idea to create staging areas for the trailers outside the hurricane zone.

Today, Hope has 10,777 wide-bodied mobile homes sitting empty at Hope Municipal Airport, a sprawling former military base.

After all these months, storm victims cannot seem to get the trailers, and they're proving a mixed blessing to Hope and to Arkansas.

''It just boggles the mind in this day and time," said Mark Keith, head of the Chamber of Commerce. ''There are 10,770 trailers at Hope Airport. That's one for every man, woman and child in Hope, with a few left over to send to Emmett, down the road."

On the plus side, jobs have been created for security guards, maintenance workers, and others who try to take care of the trailers that cover all but one of the airport's runways, and that spill over onto adjacent land. At Uncle Henry's, the owner, Bobby Redman, said business was up as much as 20 percent.

''It's been good for the whole town," said Mayor Dennis Ramsey, who added that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had picked Hope after searching the Internet for World War II-era military airports.

State coffers also have benefited. Dennis Larson, a businessman in Montevideo, Minn., whose company hauled almost 400 of the trailers to Hope, said many of his drivers had gotten citations, with fines ranging from $125 to $425, on charges of not carrying the right permits or of getting stuck on the road after dark.

''I have a dozen of the tickets sitting on my desk," Larson said. ''Arkansas set out to profit. It was by far the worst of all the states that we went through."

Many are upset that the trailers are not being moved to where they're needed. ''It's not about Hope," Ramsey said. ''It's about folks in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama."

''All of us think it's not right for them to be sitting out there, and not where families need them," said Janice Skipworth, general manager of the Super 8 Motel, which filled with Katrina survivors after the storm. ''I stand behind my government no matter what, but this is kind of wrong."

With the rainy season at hand, some local officials voiced fear that many of the units would sink into the mud. But FEMA announced plans to lay down a 290-acre bed of gravel, at a cost of $6 million.

Why haven't the trailers been sent to those who need them?

Representative Mike Ross, a Democrat of Arkansas and a graduate of Hope High School, asked that question Thursday as he toured the airport with FEMA officials. ''It cost $431 million, and they're all sitting there -- 75 percent of them literally parked in a cow pasture," Ross said in a telephone interview.

FEMA says it has been stymied by federal regulations, such as one forbidding trailers to be on flood planes -- which rules out much of the area hit by Katrina -- and by local officials in Louisiana.

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