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Renaissance Village, a FEMA trailer park in Baker, La., is one of 132 group sites in Louisiana. An estimated 298,000 people, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, are still living in trailers.
Renaissance Village, a FEMA trailer park in Baker, La., is one of 132 group sites in Louisiana. An estimated 298,000 people, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, are still living in trailers. (Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe)

Waiting in fear in government trailers

Storm evacuees live in uncertainty

BAKER, La. -- They live in neat rows, cooped up, planning their escape. In Janet Hooker's trailer, there are six family members. In Laura Hilton's, there are eight. They slip outside when they can. But unable to stand the heat for long, they quickly return to their air-conditioned FEMA trailers, and they wait.

At the ironically named Renaissance Village, the largest Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer park in Louisiana, minutes can pass like hours, hours like days.

``This is hell right here," said Hilton, 42. ``We're in hell."

One year removed from Hurricane Katrina, and coming up on the anniversary of the often-overlooked Hurricane Rita, an estimated 298,000 people are still living in trailers on the Gulf Coast, according to FEMA.

The trailers -- typically 8 feet wide and 30 feet long -- sit in trailer parks as well as in driveways and yards and next to swimming pools. In Bay St. Louis, Miss., Charles Gray parks his 1964 Rolls-Royce next to his FEMA trailer, a stark contrast of good Southern living, then and now.

The trailer is the great equalizer: Rich, poor, or middle class, people who live in one desperately want out, and this desperation is especially palpable at Renaissance Village, home to roughly 1,500 people, 437 occupied trailers, and 136 vacant ones.

The Renaissance Village trailer park -- or ``group site," as FEMA calls it -- is 90 miles northwest of New Orleans, a short drive from Baton Rouge, near the dilapidated strip malls outside a town called Baker. It is well organized. Trailer follows trailer in a tidy 62-acre grid of gravel and grass, and many people feel blessed to have it.

Life here is free. Electricity is paid for. Water, paid for. And there is no rent. The only thing residents have to buy is the propane that powers their stoves, and that has lifted a huge financial burden for many. Not needing to pay rent, more than a few folks have wired their trailers for DirecTV.

But life at Renaissance Village is hardly easy. Many residents are poor, their children displaced and still going to schools far from home. A free bus service ferries residents lacking cars to a bus stop, but the trailer park is isolated in rural East Baton Rouge Parish.

Private security officers patrol the trailer park's wide gravel roads on golf carts, but few people feel safe. A key to one FEMA trailer may also open another person's or several more, officials discovered last month, leaving many people to live in fear of neighbors they do not know.

Donna L. Brown , 41, curls up at night with knives.

``I sleep with knives under my bed," she said, pulling serrated blades from the folds of her bedding and waving them in the air. ``I sleep with knives all over. Because of the fear. I don't know what's going to happen."

Uncertainty is everywhere these days . FEMA officials had hoped to move everyone out of the trailers within 18 months of the storms, and they have made some progress toward that goal. According to FEMA numbers, the trailer population in Louisiana has declined by 5,000 since a peak in June. But as some people leave, others arrive.

And with 132 group sites still operating in Louisiana and roughly 8,000 displaced people still waiting to get a trailer, officials now say the 18-month deadline is unrealistic. Trailer life could go on indefinitely.

``It's just shocking. The Ninth Ward, Lakeview, and the whole New Orleans east area are just devastated," said Jim Stark , director of FEMA's Louisiana transitional recovery office. ``And it's going to be a long time before we can get houses built there. It's going to be tough."

The name, Renaissance Village, was chosen by residents of the trailer park in October, and James Waller, vice president of the trailer park council, said most liked it. Renaissance Village was a hopeful name; it marked a new beginning. Living in a trailer had to be better than living in a shelter, people thought, and both officials and residents saw them as a short-term solution.

But as weeks turned into months, it became clear that the trailers were here to stay. Hurricane Katrina not only displaced New Orleanians, it also depleted the city's housing stock, severely damaging more than half of the homes in New Orleans, especially affordable homes. More than a year later, the city has 80 percent fewer public housing units than it did pre-Katrina, and rents in other units are up as much as 25 percent.

In a recent visit to Renaissance Village, Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans met with residents beneath the large white tent in the middle of the trailer park -- the only slice of shade around -- and conceded that higher rent is a serious obstacle to getting people back home.

As Nagin spoke about this problem, residents hung on his every word and nodded in agreement when he told them, ``You deserve better than these trailers."

But many listened out of curiosity, nothing more. Many people who live in Renaissance Village say they are never going back to New Orleans. Brown, who sleeps with her knives, said she is looking to move to rural Ascension Parish, where her mother lives. Waller, and his wife, Jeanne, are hoping to move into a new home in Baker by Christmas. And the Parker family is also looking to live elsewhere.

Darryl and Maria Parker, renters in New Orleans at the time of the storm, and their 10-year-old son, Pernell, expect to become homeowners in Baton Rouge by year's end. Some people, said Maria Parker, are content to live off government assistance in the trailer parks.

``But we're not. I'm not," she said. ``This is worse than being stuck in the projects. A lot of times in the projects, you know the people. You know the crooks. You know the murderers. You know the burglars. We knew who was who in the projects. Out here, you don't know."

The Parkers compared living in a trailer to being in jail. Others say it is like being caged. Or homeless. Janet Hooker said trailer living makes her feel like ``a whale in a shoebox," and she prays for deliverance.

On a recent Sunday, Hooker and Charlene Williams , 66, stood in the sun, waiting to get into a mobile home where a local pastor holds weekly church services. Dressed in their Sunday best, the two women easily found seats inside, but only because they were early. The mobile home was packed by the time the service started just after 11 a.m.

``Get them out of these trailers, good Lord," said the Rev. Pat Williams . ``Father God," Williams added, ``let them know there is hope."

The mobile home, filled with more than 50 people, shook for the next hour and a half, the sound of canned music carrying across the gravel parking lot as people inside shouted, sang, and swayed to the music.

``This," Hooker said afterward, ``is New Orleans."

But like so many other people, Hooker, a nurse by trade, does not plan to move back to New Orleans anytime soon. She is looking for a home in Baker or nearby Zachary, she said, and she is doing it, for the most part, on her own.

FEMA teams check in these days to make sure people are doing their best to find housing. But there is no integrated plan to move people out of trailers, leaving folks like Hooker stuck for now.

``I hope it's not long," she said. ``I hope God blesses me with something pretty soon. But I can wait. I can wait until the Lord has something ready for me."

Others, however, cannot stand to wait much longer, even those living in trailers much closer to home. Urilda Boe, who lives in a trailer in the side yard of her home in New Orleans, counts herself among those.

Boe, 87, first moved into the squat, brick home just outside her trailer door in 1955 and raised two children in the middle-class neighborhood of Gentilly. The house, though destroyed by flood water, is still well kept on the outside today. Marigolds and crepe myrtles blossom in her front yard.

But Boe is all alone out there, an old woman in an isolated outpost, and she is realistic about the future. She knows she might die living in a trailer. ``It's hard when you don't have transportation," she said. ``I can't go anywhere. It's hard when you don't have a phone. I can't call anybody. I'm all by myself all the time."

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