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Monday, December 19, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Outcasts in their own state, Katrina evacuees settle in

Los Angeles Times

BATON ROUGE, La. — On the northern outskirts of Baton Rouge, FEMA workers are working 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.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to open two other villages near the airport and 15 throughout Louisiana. Seven villages are under construction in Mississippi, and trailers by the hundreds have been streaming daily into East Texas.

The federal government set aside more than $2 billion for 125,000 trailers and mobile homes to house the neediest of the estimated 1.5 million people 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-in compound of 198 trailers in Baton Rouge, federal workers say they will do everything possible to help evacuees get resettled 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 do only so much, says FEMA spokesman Bill Lehman, who is at the village called Airport Site No. 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 transition into permanent housing. After that, 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, Texas?

"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. He has one artificial knee that constantly falls out of joint.

Like the Porras family in Del Rio 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.

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 José Luis Porras Jr. might tell him, the first night of what may become a longer stay than he can imagine.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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