Disaster Housing 1: From Shelters to — What?

The transitional nature of disaster housing brings an extensive set of trade-offs. Case in point: Hurricanes


According to Steve DeBlasio, Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator for FEMA, all of the victims of Hurricane Sandy are currently out of the emergency shelters. But for DeBlasio, in many respects, that only means the hardest part of his job is just beginning. Disaster housing is a longer-term challenge for communities devastated by hurricanes, floods, earthquake and fire.

“We do still have almost 2,000 people in temporary shelter assistance,” he said, almost a month after the hurricane slammed the East Coast.

These are the people housed in hotels and with friends who need help finding a place to live until their homes can be rebuilt. But how do you do that without moving them too far from their jobs, schools, doctors and lives, not to mention find a way to fund it while leaving intact as much as possible of the money set aside for repairs on their homes?

“There are challenges no matter how you shake and bake it,” said DeBlasio, who is currently working on the recovery effort in New Jersey.

While finding the right temporary housing is the most immediate need, he pointed out that it’s just as much about rebuilding the damaged areas, which in New Jersey poses yet another problem: Much of the destruction hit in flood plains and surge areas. It doesn’t make sense to rebuild a community that will just get taken out again with the next big storm.

“We can’t be building back with the same risks,” DeBlasio said.

Rental Complications

DeBlasio said that his first priority in finding housing for families is to look at whatever rental stock is available, preferably something close to the original community that’s pre-furnished. “If you can get it, that’s the home run,” he said.

Even so, without the right kind of rental assistance to fund the apartment, just paying the rent could bleed a family’s repair fund dry before they can begin repairs on their home.

DeBlasio said that FEMA has also tried to provide landlords with an incentive to get apartment buildings repaired quickly by guaranteeing that the agency will house families there. But that can be problematic, as families find their own options during the repairs and often the number of units that the agency had reason to believe they needed has lowered dramatically by the time the units are ready. Then FEMA is stuck paying for units that aren’t being used.

Add onto that the requirement that at least 15 percent of all facilities provided by the agency have to be reserved for individuals who need to use wheelchairs or who have other special needs requiring permanent adjustments, including lower counters and cupboards and wheel-in showers instead of bathtubs.

The very easiest solution would be to bring in travel trailers, which have the advantage of not requiring infrastructure to be in place. Also, such trailers can often be wheeled right onto the land where the original home is being re-built, thus minimizing disruption to the families. But they can be difficult to live in for months at a time, especially for larger families, and in New Jersey, DeBlasio said, it would mean putting the families right back in the path of another storm.

A More Portable, Compact Option

FEMA has also looked at the option of flat-pack, pop-up–style housing, which has the advantage of being very easy and quick to deploy.

Rafael Smith, owner of Uber Shelters, which makes this type of housing, pointed out that it’s easier to bring such units into an affected region. “You can fit 30-something of these on a flatbed truck,” he said, whereas each travel trailer deployed requires a separate truck or vehicle.

[The T-Shel (for “Transitional Shelter”) 2 features a galvanized-steel frame and a two-story, 190-square-foot design to make the most use of potentially limited space, plus telescoping legs for uneven sites. Particularly in Third World settings, more-permanent sheathing materials can be added to the polypropylene walls and roof to transition the structure to permanent housing.]

DeBlasio said that FEMA has been looking at just such shelters, and in fact, used some of them during the recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But using the shelters presents many of the same problems that regular manufactured housing trailers do, especially in terms of providing plumbing, sanitation, electricity and other wrap-around services, including police and fire protection and mail service.

Smith concedes that his shelters were designed more with Third World countries in mind (two of his prototypes are occupied in Haiti now), where there isn’t any infrastructure and the shelters can not only provide emergency shelter, but can also be upgraded into better housing than what existed before.

Uber’s shelters can be upgraded to provide plumbing, heat and electricity, but Smith agreed that most of them probably won’t fit the expectations of most Americans. And, as DeBlasio noted, sewer pipes, gas pipes and wiring would be needed to bring water, gas and electricity to the shelter, along with the same problems with getting police and fire protection and other services.

Plus, when a family has lost everything, FEMA also has to provide basics, such as mattresses, bedding, pots and pans, spoons and forks.

“They came along with sheets, pillows, tableware,” said Keith Stammer, director of emergency management for Jasper County and the city of Joplin, Mo., about the manufactured housing provided by FEMA after the devastating tornado in 2010 destroyed more than 7,500 buildings in the city.

Rebuilding Better

But while Stammer was very grateful for the assistance and the manufactured housing provided by FEMA, he also pointed out that there was one additional problem with the homes. They were sometimes nicer than what the families had lived in originally and it became difficult to get some of the families out, a problem DeBlasio said also happened after the Katrina recovery.

“It’s another reason why we don’t want to be in that business,” DeBlasio said, adding that mobile home parks are the agency’s very last resort for finding transitional housing.

Right now, DeBlasio thinks he’s found a good post-Sandy solution: Fort Monmouth. The army base was decommissioned and closed in September 2011, but the housing units are still there. DeBlasio said that the units are being renovated and furnished, which while expensive and time-consuming, is still cheaper than laying the infrastructure needed for a mobile home park. In addition, because the need can be rather fluid, he’s able to renovate the buildings as needed, rather than renovate an entire apartment complex and then be able to fill only half.

But the effort is only one part of the recovery effort, which will involve city, state and federal agencies, in addition to the private sector.

“The biggest challenge is that the damage areas, a lot of it was on barrier islands,” DeBlasio said. “They’re in surge zones, and of course, the further you get away the less desirable it is.

“Gov. Christie talks about the new normal,” he continued. “We don’t expect that anything is going to be back the way it was before. There’s going to be some hard choices that are going to be made.

“It’s about the entire interagency community, faith-based and voluntary, all the federal agencies, state and local, with the private sector…. When you bring all of those resources together, we expect to be building back, but we’ll be building back with more resilience.”

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