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

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In Del Rio, "temporary" can mean "permanent"

Los Angeles Times

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 José 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 shape 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 (FEMA) 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 of 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 cactuses.

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 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 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 — José; his wife, Angie; and their children, Priscilla and Joe — were assigned to Lot 39 in the cluster closest to town. Their mobile home is 14 feet wide, 56 feet long and has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, central air and heat.

Compared to 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. 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 had a yard with pecan trees and sweet grass and secret places where kids could hide and play. Everything had a history. Even the messiness had character.

That house, Porras says, was a real home.

The family doesn't feel the same about their mobile home. Once the newness wore off, the village began to take on the look of a rural ghetto, with broken windows, cannibalized cars in driveways, and mangy dogs tied to dilapidated porches.

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 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 has had two more children — Jacinda and Kimberly, 8 months — since 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 corners of the Lone Star state, with more than 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 per-capita income — at $12,096 — runs far below the state average.

Porras is an unemployed plumber who does odd jobs. His wife 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. Just moving it 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.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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