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FEMA's Dirty Little Secret ^ | 02-02-06 | Chuck Hustmyre

Posted on 02/03/2006 6:33:01 AM PST by Ellesu

FEMA's Baker trailer park is a mysterious sanctuary, as 225 found out when we asked freelance writer Chuck Hustmyre to write about life in B.R.'s instant subdivision. The quest to simply enter the park became a story in itself as FEMA has surrounded the place in a baffling veil of secrecy and red tape. But once inside, Hustmyre met frustrated, angry people eager to tell the world about their troubled daily lives.

Do you know what life is like at the FEMA trailer park in Baker?

No? Don't feel badly. Hardly anyone does.

Much within Renaissance Village--the grandiosely named smudge of dirt and limestone on the outskirts of Baker that's home to 565 travel trailers---remains largely concealed from the outside world, as does the plight of the 1,600 displaced New Orleanians who now call the place home. Their trailer park is protected by a veil of inexplicable procedures that not even government workers agree on.

I thought, rather naively, I could simply stroll the grounds of Renaissance Village, talk to the residents, maybe take some pictures and generally get a feel for how the residents were faring as they prepared for their first Christmas away from home, family and friends.

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency carefully manages and monitors information coming out of the Groom Road trailer park. Not even local law enforcement officials can get all the information they believe they need to ensure the public safety.

The first hint things weren't going to be easy came from an old salt at The Advocate who told me FEMA assigns handlers to reporters, at least they did whenever the newspaper covered a staged visit by a dignitary looking for a photo op.

Still, how much trouble could it be? I wondered. After all, I was just trying to write a story about people who are trying to put their lives back together.

So I called FEMA to let them know I was coming.

My first call was to Don Johnson, one of the park's assistant managers. Johnson told me he couldn't let me on the property unless I obtained approval from a higher-up at FEMA.

"It's like a gated community," Johnson tried to explain. I pointed out access to a gated community usually requires only the permission of a member of the community, not the federal government.

"I guess it's a little different," he admitted.

To try to get FEMA's permission to go into the park, I stopped in at the agency's area headquarters at the old Goudchaux's building on Main Street in Baton Rouge. When I asked Manny Broussard, a FEMA public relations contractor, about getting into the park to conduct some interviews, his response was immediate. "It's not going to happen," he said. He reminded me of that guy from those credit card commercials, the one who always says no.

Next, I called Chad Ladov, a FEMA public information officer, who was actually at the park when we spoke. I asked him if I could come out and do some interviews. Ladov said he would check on it and call me back. An hour or so later Ladov called back and said no.

I felt an Orwellian shudder. Was the government really thwarting my efforts to interview people?

Ladov referred me to his boss, Gail Tate, also a FEMA public information officer. Ms. Tate said I had been misinformed. Of course I could go to the park and interview some of the residents. I simply needed to clear it with her first.

"We are trying to make sure that the residents are as comfortable as possible," Tate explained, "and that there are as few intrusions into their lives as possible."

After a few bureaucratic bumps, everything was back on track. I was going to get to write my story after all. Tate said she'd call back. Shades of Orwell's 1984 seemed to be fading.

Meanwhile, Fred Raiford, spokesman for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office, was telling me FEMA has refused to provide his office with a list of park residents, citing privacy issues. Raiford said from his perspective, getting the list is a public safety issue. Between Oct. 1. (the day the park opened) and Dec. 15, the Sheriff's Office answered 80 calls for assistance at the trailer park and made 25 arrests.

"We know there are some criminals there," Raiford said. "And we know there are some sex offenders there."

Susan Lindsey, regional director for the state's division of probation and parole, estimates about 25% of the 8,000 probationers and parolees from the greater New Orleans area are still unaccounted for. About 30 of them are registered sex offenders with outstanding arrest warrants.

Raiford insists the Sheriff's Office needs to know who's in the park.

He's not the only local public official frustrated by FEMA's secretive veil.

Baker Fire Chief Danny Edwards has had his own run-ins with FEMA over the trailer park. "Everything is so secretive out there that it's unreal," he said.

When Gail Tate called me back she had a simple message: No.

"We simply don't do a-day-in-the-life-type stories," she said. "But if you'd like to do a story, it's just like any other gated community. If you're invited by a resident, you're more than welcome to come in."

There was just one catch.

"The FEMA policy is that all media be escorted," Tate said. "We don't intervene or anything, but we have to be there. We have a presence."

Why aren't the residents free to talk to whomever they want without a government overseer? I asked. Tate dove into a bureaucratic foxhole. "That's the policy," she repeated.

I pressed a little harder. What's the reason for the policy?

"I'm an evacuee," Tate explained. "We're not 100%, and we don't always make the best judgments when we're not 100%."

Her message was clear: Evacuees needed someone to make their decisions for them and who better to take care of that than the government.

I could almost see George Orwell peeking around the corner, smiling.

It was time to go to the park.

The security guards stopped me at the gate. I asked assistant manager Don Johnson if he could arrange an interview for me. He disappeared into the park's administrative office.

While I waited, a man came into the park and asked a security guard for directions to one of the trailers. The guard gave him directions and off the man went. It got me thinking.

"How come he can get in and I can't?" I asked the guard.

"He's going to a specific residence," the security man said.

"So if I knew somebody here, I'd be good to go?" I asked.

"If I saw your camera and stuff, I wouldn't let you in," the guard responded.

"Why is the press kept out but not private citizens?"

The security guard paused for a few seconds, then said, "Well, private citizens are in here visiting...They're no threat to these people."

Johnson never returned, so I left.

At the Baker Post Office, which is located up the road from the park, I ran into park residents Sonja Fletcher and Lisa Washington.

Washington has her view of why FEMA and the Keta Group, the company FEMA contracted to run the day-to-day operations of the trailer park, have placed so many restrictions on reporters. "They don't want nobody to come in there to find out what's really going on," Washington said.

A Keta Group spokesman, who refused to give his full name, told me the company employs about 60 residents at the park, mainly for food service and maintenance.

Some of those employees, Fletcher and Washington insist, take the lion's share of donations intended for park residents, everything from toys to toiletries to turkeys.

Resident Michael Whins agrees.

"The thing is, the Keta workers who manage [the park], it's like whatever is there for us, they take it," he said.

Willie Converse lives at the park and drives a bus for a living. He's not there most of the time when Keta distributes the donated items. And because he's away working, he doesn't get much. "You get penalized for working," he said. "That's the way it seems."

The next day, I returned to the park. Tired of the bureaucratic runaround, I decided to take a different approach. I decided to go covert. I used to keep a strip of paper pegged to a bulletin board above my desk on which was printed a line from Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The line went like this: "Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind."

Not wanting to risk an American icon of the stature of Gen. MacArthur would have thought me lazy, I opted to bend--if not flat out break--the rules. FEMA and the Keta Group made it fairly easy. Although the draconian dictums had initially thwarted me, I suspected standard government-issued inefficiency could still work to my advantage. And I was right.

With my press credentials, notebook and camera stashed out of sight, I slipped into the trailer park as a visitor.

What I found--on the surface, at least--was a fairly neat, well-run housing complex. The 65-acre park is divided into sections designated by letters. The 565 travel trailers sit in neat rows, the trailers lettered and numbered. There's a cafeteria, several laundry rooms, a recreation area, a free eye clinic, even a satellite television vendor.

So why all the secrecy?

Trina Roberts has lived at the Groom Road trailer park since it opened. She's a single mother of three, but recently sent her children away to stay with relatives because of the poor living conditions at the park. She told me she doesn't feel safe there.

"There's really no law here," she said. "There are at least three drug trailers where people go in and out all night long." The unarmed security force isn't enough to protect the residents, Roberts said, and she is upset about FEMA's reluctance to cooperate with local law enforcement. "They should have gone ahead and given the sheriff what he needed to come in here and get these drugs out of here," she said. And Roberts agreed with others who suggested that a sheriff's substation, operating out of one of the empty trailers, would be a big help.

Whins said it's the underside of the park FEMA doesn't want anyone to see: drug dealing, theft and violence.

"A guy got stabbed in H section," Whins said, talking about a recent incident. "There's violence here. Some gets reported, some don't."

All the red tape virtually obscures the real-life dramas unfolding a day at a time in this home-away-from-home for New Orleans' storm evacuees.

Whins, it turns out, is living in a 30-foot trailer with his ex-wife and six children. At first, he had his own trailer and could visit his children. Then his parents arrived at the park, so he gave them his trailer and moved in with his ex, so he could be near his children.

Life isn't as orderly and safe as the neat rows of trailers might imply.

Whins said he recently saw a drug addict trying to sell a $50 gift card for $20 cash.

Some people in the trailer park used their connections with Keta Group resident employees to horde toys before Christmas even though they had no children living with them, Whins said. "A lot of people who didn't have kids ended up with four and five bikes," he added. "I was there. I saw this."

I asked Whins why someone would do that. He pointed to a nearby bicycle. "To a crackhead, that's money."

Whins says he knows plenty about drugs and drug dealers: He was one. In the 1990s, he got busted for selling dope and went to prison. "I've done my time, and I'm not ashamed," he said.

Whins suggested one solution to the problems plaguing the trailer park would be for the sheriff's office to open a substation there. He also thinks the park's security force needs more training. "Security is a joke," he said.

The idea FEMA wants to monitor conversations between residents and reporters also bothers Whins. "I'm not a prisoner," he said. "If we can have drug dealers coming in here, why can't we talk to a reporter? I don't need no chaperone to have a conversation with you. I'm 42 years old."

On my way out of the trailer park, I noticed something that lent credence to what Whins told me.

As a veteran of more than 20 years of law enforcement, including a decade working violent crime in New Orleans housing projects, I know a thing or two about indicators of criminal activity. I spotted a few thugmobiles rolling through the park: expensive cars, tricked out, pumping out so much bass the ground shakes. The drivers laid back in their seats, eyes shaded, caps cocked sideways, looking cool and without a care in the world.

It's not proof of anything. Like I said, it's simply an indicator.

Is FEMA consciously trying to hide the raw reality of crime in its trailer park?

Is its veil of secrecy over the park connected to the fact the agency is desperately trying to convince more communities around Louisiana to accept trailer parks, so it can move more evacuees out of expensive hotels?

After visiting the park and after hearing some of the residents' allegations of dope peddling, theft, and violence, I made repeated calls to FEMA to get answers. None of my calls were returned.

The government's stonewalling leaves many more questions than there are answers about the Groom Road trailer park and its rules. Too bad FEMA won't let reporters in to look around, and the agency won't cooperate with local law enforcement.

TOPICS: Crime/Corruption; Culture/Society; Government; US: Louisiana
KEYWORDS: fema; katrina; trailerpark
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1 posted on 02/03/2006 6:33:03 AM PST by Ellesu
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To: LA Woman3

Meanwhile, Fred Raiford, spokesman for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office, was telling me FEMA has refused to provide his office with a list of park residents, citing privacy issues. Raiford said from his perspective, getting the list is a public safety issue. Between Oct. 1. (the day the park opened) and Dec. 15, the Sheriff's Office answered 80 calls for assistance at the trailer park and made 25 arrests.

2 posted on 02/03/2006 6:34:14 AM PST by Ellesu (
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To: CajunConservative

There's a cafeteria, several laundry rooms, a recreation area, a free eye clinic, even a satellite television vendor.

3 posted on 02/03/2006 6:35:34 AM PST by Ellesu (
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To: Ellesu

Meanwhile in Houston, we are dealing with free-range evacuees and it's not pretty.

4 posted on 02/03/2006 6:40:19 AM PST by small voice in the wilderness (Hillary/Obama Nation '08. Let The Desolation Begin.)
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To: Ellesu

Cliche alert! Why are all secrets "dirty" and "little"?

5 posted on 02/03/2006 6:44:54 AM PST by RexBeach ("There is no substitute for victory." -Douglas MacArthur)
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To: Ellesu

Some of those people getting freebe's would bitch about being hung with an old rope.

6 posted on 02/03/2006 6:45:49 AM PST by Piquaboy (22 year veteran of the Army, Air Force and Navy, Pray for all our military .)
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To: Ellesu

FEMA has no business in the hoteling/trailer park industry. Sometimes people are just out of luck, this nation should not be in the business of paying for acts of God. If insurance companies don't, government certainly shouldn't be either.

Another path to socialism - end it!

7 posted on 02/03/2006 6:48:31 AM PST by wvobiwan (Sheehan for Senator!)
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To: RexBeach

Not a surprising development. The government created a slum and then filled it up.

8 posted on 02/03/2006 6:53:17 AM PST by Eric in the Ozarks (BTUs are my Beat.)
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To: Ellesu

Okay, so there is nothing different from this 'hood than any other 'hood except for the Gov't security oversight? Is that the story? Seems that no matter what folks do for the "dependant class" that class will always find a way to put themselves back into the cesspool.

9 posted on 02/03/2006 6:59:58 AM PST by Mathews (Shot... Splash... Out!)
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To: Ellesu

I'm sure the Baker residents are thrilled to hear this news....

10 posted on 02/03/2006 7:31:54 AM PST by LA Woman3
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To: Ellesu

FEMA soon to weed out ineligible
Trailer, check recipients must prove need
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
By James Varney Staff writer Times-Picayune
Five months after Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans and launched thousands of residents on a furious, ongoing scramble for temporary housing, the fortunate people who landed FEMA trailers or rental assistance checks soon will have to prove they still need the help.

Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency are, as required every 90 days, launching a recertification program of those aid programs. No one knows how many people will lose their trailers or their cash -- FEMA says the figure is small -- but the move is necessary as the agency goes from emergency to more traditional, longer-term programs. That process requires FEMA to weed out some noneligible beneficiaries, such as foreign citizens in the United States illegally or people who were homeless when the storm hit.

At the same time, officials stressed that no one eligible for help would be denied. FEMA will provide a trailer or a mobile home for 18 months. That clock started ticking last August when, with Katrina's storm swirls filling the Gulf of Mexico and landfall imminent, President Bush declared southeastern Louisiana a disaster area. To keep the trailer, however, "(the) occupant must make an ongoing effort to obtain permanent housing at the earliest possible date and accept adequate alternate housing when it becomes available," the agency said.

Several FEMA officials declined to discuss the recertification program on the record, and there appeared to be some disagreement about whether this week's announcement marked a shifting of gears within the agency. Nevertheless, the tone of the agency's comments about the recertification was unusually forceful, and appeared to reflect a belief that aid recipients need to move forward.

"The units FEMA brought in to ease Louisiana's housing shortage after the hurricanes provide renters and homeowners with a safe, sanitary and functional place to live while repairs are made on their permanent homes," said Scott Wells, the agency's federal coordinating officer. "It is now time to begin getting people back to more permanent arrangements."

Wells' comment may carry an odd ring for some of the more than 10,000 people in Louisiana still occupying a FEMA-paid hotel room as of Jan. 29, or for those -- roughly 16,000 in New Orleans alone -- still on a waiting list for a travel trailer. Similarly puzzled might be the thousands of homeowners waiting on direction from the city or state before plunging ahead with expensive repairs.
ndeed, prior to Wells' announcement, FEMA's slow pace in getting temporary housing options in place had been a source of confusion and dismay for the public and elected officials in Louisiana.

Some FEMA officials tried to soften Wells' words, saying they were intended more as a harbinger of the agency's focus than a threat to those receiving assistance. What's more, officials insist situations will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and even at the end of the 18-month period FEMA thinks extensions will be routinely granted. At the same time, however, officials said the agency intends to more forcefully police its programs.

"As Wells likes to say, it's time to own your own recovery," said Rachel Rodi, an agency spokeswoman in Baton Rouge. "We need to review where everyone is and start working on what we can do from there. There has been so much confusion it is time to get the clear message out that nothing has changed in terms of deadlines."
Inspections starting

Consequently, FEMA inspection teams are beginning to fan out to check on those living in a government mobile home or trailer, and on those receiving rental assistance or living in a hotel. For example, FEMA estimates that more than 80 percent of those living in Louisiana hotel rooms also have received rental assistance. FEMA officials stressed that cash should have been spent on addressing recipients' housing needs.

FEMA required all 10,417 hotel rooms in Louisiana to apply for a code card if occupants wanted to extend their stay up to the Feb. 13 deadline. All told, 73 percent applied for the card and all were approved, FEMA said. The agency has closed files on the remaining 27 percent.

There remains a shortage of trailers in New Orleans, and many residents leaving hotels will be faced with stark choices. As FEMA combs through its case files, officials said they will move aggressively to put people receiving assistance in whatever "permanent" housing can be found. The beneficiary's desire to stay close to home will not be a factor, officials said, with one noting privately that the new digs "could be in Shreveport or Kentucky."

"It's a tough decision for families, there's no doubt about it," Rodi said. "But remember the family will have to make that decision, not FEMA."

Rodi said no one seeking a trailer will be erased from the waiting list, even if some other living arrangement is set up. On the other hand, FEMA will only provide one form of housing or assistance, she said, meaning that those who enter into a lease elsewhere will either have to wiggle out of it or pay the rent if they choose to return to New Orleans.
. . . . . . .

11 posted on 02/03/2006 7:34:11 AM PST by Vn_survivor_67-68
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To: Ellesu
Perfect example of ivory tower reasoning that doesn't survive its first encounter with street sharks. It's nice to think that giving poor homeless kids bicycles for Christmas is the fulfillment of some Dickensian vision. But the reality is the bikes never get to the lovable gamins; they end up as barter for the crack trade.

And millions more taxpayers dollars go to enrich society's enemies.

12 posted on 02/03/2006 7:39:54 AM PST by IronJack
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To: LA Woman3

My mother lives in Baker, just a few miles from this park. I wish the government gave her neighborhood the security that they provide this trailer park. I don't see the feds paying for a security guard for Mom's neighborhood.

13 posted on 02/03/2006 8:11:28 AM PST by sportutegrl (People who say, "All I know is . . ." really mean, "All I want you to focus on is . . .")
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To: sportutegrl
My mother lives in Baker, just a few miles from this park.

Has she had any problems?
14 posted on 02/03/2006 8:20:01 AM PST by LA Woman3
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To: sportutegrl

I know someone I work with who lives about a mile from the park. She is selling her house. Apparently the residents of the park patrol the neighborhood all day, looking for an opportunity. She hasn't felt safe in her house since it opened. Like the ghetto moved next door and brought their criminals with them.

What I don't get is why is fema protecting the drug dealers. For crying out loud.

15 posted on 02/03/2006 8:51:02 AM PST by cajungirl (no)
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To: Ellesu
Gail Tate, also a FEMA public information officer.

Gail Tate ... Tail Gate ... makes one wonder if this is an alias ...   LOL   ... maybe I just got caught up in the spirit of the story, though.

16 posted on 02/03/2006 10:45:04 AM PST by caryatid (Jolie Blonde, 'gardez donc, quoi t'as fait ...)
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To: wvobiwan

I'm sitting now...trying to look back at all the hurricanes over the past 25 years. And I can't find an example of FEMA ever setting up security at trailer parks. There weren't any. I can't find any examples in South Carolina, Florida, or Alabama. So now....I'm awondering...who the heck ordered this and who is paying for this "protection" out of whose pocket? And if the answer is FEMA...then its the wrong answer. I realize that FEMA is renting the property, the trailers, and set conditions for anyone to move into the whole mess...but this all smells bad. Makes me wonder just how long this would be allowed to continue? Will this park exist in five years still? Will the security guy still be walking the gate in 2015?

I can already see a movie out of this job....Bob the Security Dude (Katrina's Guardian).

17 posted on 02/03/2006 10:52:48 AM PST by pepsionice
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To: LA Woman3

Not yet, but she is looking to move.

18 posted on 02/03/2006 11:54:27 AM PST by sportutegrl (People who say, "All I know is . . ." really mean, "All I want you to focus on is . . .")
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To: Ellesu

The real dirty little secret is the fact that local authorities and the Advocate continue to hide stories about crime going up in and around Baton Rouge.

I don't understand why they won't say anything. People need to be on guard to this new threat.

19 posted on 02/03/2006 1:33:00 PM PST by Roux
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To: pepsionice
I can't find an example of FEMA ever setting up security at trailer parks.

Too funny. Sorry, it's just too painfully funny.

Everybody was happy to look the other way when these birds lived like this in the NO housing projects.

Now the chickens have come home to roost in Baker, in good old East Baton Rouge Parish. And the government of East Baton Rouge Parish, the state capitol, is shocked, shocked at the way these people live.

Well, given that the rest of the country doesn't want to rebuild New Orleans, enjoy your new citizens.

20 posted on 02/03/2006 5:07:30 PM PST by CobaltBlue (Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderatigon in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.)
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